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WTO 'cautiously optimistic' on fisheries, agriculture deals

Subsidies and overcapacity in the global fishing industry are the target of World Trade Organisation talks this week
— Abu Dhabi (AFP)

The head of the World Trade Organization on Tuesday said she was "cautiously optimistic" about prospects of striking deals on fisheries and agriculture during a ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi.

The comments by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala came as tough negotiations kicked off on the second day of the WTO's 13th ministerial conference which is scheduled to run until Thursday but could go into over-time amid divisions.

"We just got started… so we are at the very beginning,” she told a press conference.

“I can say that I am cautiously optimistic."

With WTO rules requiring full consensus between all member states, there is little hope for major breakthroughs, apart from a new global agreement on fisheries subsidies.

Many eyes are trained on India -- which is often described as obstructionist in trade talks -- but its Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has yet to arrive in Abu Dhabi. He is expected on Wednesday.

With a fisheries deal largely seen as the only viable outcome of the full WTO conference (MC13), an agreement on agriculture is less likely.

Negotiating parties have an "open mind and a desire to find a solution," said a source close to the discussions, noting however, that it was still too soon to predict the outcome.

“The distance between positions is closer than in the past at the technical level, but at the political level it is very difficult,” the source said, citing farmer protests in India and Europe as well as upcoming elections in dozens of countries.

- Fisheries -

After a 2022 deal which banned subsidies contributing to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, the WTO hopes to conclude a second package focusing on subsidies which result in overcapacity and overfishing.

The 2022 agreement has yet to take effect as not enough countries have ratified it.

But negotiations in recent months at the WTO headquarters in Geneva have enabled a draft text to be brought forward for a second fisheries deal.

It essentially divides member countries into three groups, with the largest subsidy providers subject to greater scrutiny.

It provides flexibility and advantages for developing countries.

World Trade Organisation members face difficult talks this week to try to cut subsidies and over-capacity in the global industry

But some -- notably India -- are demanding further concessions, including transition periods that others consider to be too long.

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said he was "open" to discuss flexibilities as long as the "transitions don’t become so long and the exceptions so broad that they defy environmental objectives."

A French diplomatic source said he was "confident in our abilities to finally seal this agreement," despite existing sticking points.

Some NGOs, meanwhile, are concerned that too much leniency on a fisheries deal could compromise the outcome.

"The best outcome is the outcome without any flexibility," said Enrique Sanjurjo of the non-profit Pesca Alternativa de Baja California.

But "we have what we have and what we have is good," he told a panel on Tuesday.

- Agriculture -

Unlike other WTO agreements which aim to lift trade barriers or counter trade distortions, the draft text -- just like the 2022 agreement -- forms part of the United Nations' sustainable development goals.

But one sticking point is what constitutes small-scale or artisanal fishing, which benefits from certain exceptions.

Other friction points include the banning of fuel subsidies for fisheries which Dombrovskis said is not a key part of current negotiations.

While there is hope for a fisheries agreement, food security is set to spark debate.

There is deep disagreement over a demand from India and others for permanent rules governing public stockholding of food reserves, instead of temporary measures.

During a WTO session on agriculture on Tuesday, India said a "permanent solution...has to be delivered," according to a government statement.

Edwini Kessie, WTO's director of agriculture and commodities, acknowledged that there is no "convergence" on the topic.

"Clearly the most difficult issue is public stockholding," he said.

Meanwhile, Okonjo-Iweala pleaded with member states to make progress.

“I implore you to deliver an agriculture outcome at MC13, even if it is setting the platform to do later a more solid work going forward," she said on Monday.