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Reports on Meetings

October 1999

Informal Meeting on Countries in Transition and the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle

(held in the Palais des nations, Geneva on 14 October 1999)

1. On the 14 October 1999 the UN/ECE Secretariat and the Agency for International Trade Information and Cooperation (AITIC) organised a meeting to discuss issues of interest for its Member States related to the Third WTO Ministerial Conference to be held in Seattle later this year. Mr. István Major, Ambassador of Hungary, chaired the Meeting.

2. Mr. Yves Berthelot, UN/ECE Executive Secretary welcomed participants. He introduced the speakers, Carol Cosgrove-Sacks, Director of the UN/ECE Trade Division; Esperanza Durán, Director of AITIC; and Dariusz Rosati, UN/ECE Expert.

3. In his introductory speech Mr. Berthelot explained that only nine economies in transition (EITs) are currently WTO Members, but most others have asked for accession. The UN/ECE would like to provide a helping hand to those Eastern European and CIS countries that have a particular interest in following WTO issues. Mr. Berthelot emphasised that the spirit of the meeting was to share information in order to identify matters of common concern.

4. The Chairman, Ambassador Major, underlined the importance of the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle, as a new round of negotiations would be launched on this occasion. This represented an enormous challenge for the EITs. Many of them are heavily engaged in acceding to the WTO and terms of accession are being intensively negotiated. Even though there are different interests and preferences on both sides, Ambassador Major was confident that the accession to the WTO for most countries in this process would be achieved as speedily as possible.

5. The Director of the UN/ECE Trade Division explained that the regional economic commissions had been requested by the UN Secretary General to assist their Member States in preparing for the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Seattle. The WTO agenda was dominated, on the one hand, by the interests of the developed market economies (as represented by OECD) and, on the other hand, by demands of developing countries, particularly for special and differential treatment. The interests of the EITs should not be overlooked, especially because many of them are not yet WTO members.

6. Ms. Cosgrove-Sacks explained that the UN/ECE provided an open and neutral forum where Member States could express their concerns. EITs could freely exchange their experiences on their process of becoming WTO Members. They could share their own expertise and advice about their own negotiation process and implementation of WTO rules.

7. The UN/ECE already provided assistance to Member States regarding trade facilitation, harmonisation of technical standards (in the context of technical barriers to trade), some aspects of trade and environment, the tools for electronic commerce (including UN/EDIFACT), and new activities to promote the protection of intellectual property rights in the transition economies.

8. Ms. Esperanza Durán explained that assisting economies in transition was also an important component of AITIC’s mandate. For those not familiar with this agency, she explained that within the framework of the establishment of the headquarters of the WTO in 1995 in Geneva, the Swiss Government had decided to finance a programme to strengthen the capacity of less-advantaged country missions accredited to the WTO to lead a more effective trade diplomacy and better defend their interests. This project is part of Switzerland’s assistance policy to developing countries and transition economies in the economic and trade areas. AITIC’s aim is to help these countries to benefit from the globalisation process and the multilateral trading system by assisting them in taking a more active part in the work of the WTO. AITIC provides personalised assistance to delegates on demand. It also makes available Briefing Notes and organises Workshops on WTO issues. Finally, it provides an informal forum of discussion for representatives of the economies in transition. This was particularly useful for those undergoing the process of accession to the WTO.

9. With regard to the specific subject of participation of the EITs in the forthcoming ministerial meeting, Ms. Durán noted the importance of assessing what would be at stake for the economies in transition at the Ministerial conference in Seattle and what would be the modalities of their participation in the new round of multilateral trade negotiations. Four groups of countries that are in the process of accession or have recently become Members of the WTO could be identified: first, those who have already been integrated into the multilateral trading system, like Hungary or Poland; then countries that recently joined the WTO, like Latvia and the Kyrgyz Republic (the delegate of Estonia informed that it becomes a Member on 13 November 1999); then those countries well-advanced in the negotiations, like Croatia or Armenia; finally other EITs that are lagging behind, more due to internal problems rather than negotiating difficulties.

10. Ms. Durán highlighted that the accession process had become much more difficult than in the past. Unlike those that had acceded to the GATT, countries seeking membership of the WTO had to make commitments on many more subjects, not only those related to cross-border trade, but new issues such as subsidies, TRIPS, TRIMS, services, etc., thus having to overhaul their legislative and administrative structures to adapt to WTO rules and disciplines became an added major challenge. It was to be expected that most countries in the process of accession would not be full Members by the time the new round of multilateral trade negotiations begins. Consequently, several EITs would only participate as observers to the "Millennium Round". It was to be expected that the modalities adopted for their participation would be those followed during the Uruguay Round, with a measure of increased participation in the process.

11. Mr. Dariusz Rosati explained why the involvement in the WTO accession process is of interest to the UN/ECE. In the WTO Secretariat only five people are working with accession, which clearly illustrates that there are not enough resources to guide and respond to the needs of acceding countries. UN/ECE can assist as a regional organization experienced in transition problems. The organization is very interested and feels responsible for providing services for its Member States, if demand exists.

12. Mr. Rosati raised the question, why the WTO accession is such a long process. Numerous reasons can be found: First, the most difficult issue would be political problems. Secondly, the whole accession process becomes more time- and resource-consuming, because the number of trade-related issues requiring the implementation of clauses in the national legislation increases constantly. The candidates should have a clear vision to be able to give effective professional responses and should know how policy actions could be most productive.

13. Mr. Rosati called for action to speed up the accession process through the adoption of a fast track-approach for those countries willing to make strong commitments (against which the Ambassador Major expressed doubts: the access should not artificially be speeded-up and the number of constraints does not allow it to be any swifter). Mr. Rosati continued that the UN/ECE could provide, in collaboration with other organizations and Member Governments, technical assistance, guidance and various services; not only regarding the candidate’s preparations for the trade regime, but also for the negotiations - under the condition that there is a demand by acceding countries and in agreement with the WTO. The participation of non-Member EITs in the forthcoming Round will be very advantageous allowing them to familiarize themselves with the WTO and to make participate in bilateral negotiations perhaps advancing on making commitments.

14. Participants expressed their gratitude for having had the possibility of a meeting to discuss complex issues like their legal capacity or domestic policy problems and suggested follow-up meetings. Some countries emphasised the importance of distinguishing between the different transition countries and their different demands and interests. The EITs have to reckon with an uneven playing field as regards trade matters in general and negotiations in particular: some are very close to acceding to the European Community but others lag behind.

15. Some delegates criticised the WTO as a divided organisation, with "ins" and "outs", which meant an additional burden on small, weak and marginalised States. They wished that the WTO could become a more transparent and open organisation to facilitate the fuller participation of small countries. To balance the dissimilarities, assistance was necessary – especially on specific topics like textiles, agriculture, environment, law implementation problems, TRIPS/TRIMS, trade and financial services.

16. Some delegates said that it was not always clear for national Governments whether the price paid for WTO membership would eventually be worthwhile.

17. Another representative of a transition economy mission described how complex its accession situation is. Legislation according to WTO rules has been harmonised and now the process is blocked because no agreement on the implementation of audio-visual services could be reached.

18. Another delegation proposed the development of analyses of past experiences, results and impacts countries had learned after they had acceded to the WTO. It would be helpful if the UN/ECE Secretariat could undertake studies to assist acceding countries in becoming WTO Members, if resources were available.

19. The meeting concluded with the UN/ECE Secretariat and AITIC proposing to convene a follow-up discussion in January 2000, when the results of the WTO Seattle meeting could be assessed.


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