Trade ministers from 164 countries looked set to conclude their biennial World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Argentina without having reached a single agreement on Wednesday, still smarting from stinging criticism of the trade body voiced by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
Lighthizer blasted the WTO in a speech on Monday, saying it is losing its focus on trade negotiation and “becoming a litigation-centered organization.”
Lighthizer’s remarks prompted over 40 countries, including Canada, to issue a joint statement underlining their support for the WTO and reaffirming the “centrality” of the rules-based multilateral trading system.
Lighthizer’s comments also come as Canada has initiated action at WTO against the United States over its duties on Canadian softwood lumber.
The soured mood at the four-day conference following the U.S. criticism put even the usually perfunctory joint ministerial statement into doubt.
WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters one of the 164 member countries was refusing to sign a document stressing the importance of the multilateral trade system and of development. He did not name the country in question.
“There still seems to be significant gaps. Whether they can find wording that can bridge those gaps I don’t know,” Rockwell said.
Nor were there any agreements in other areas such as agriculture, food security, fishing or e-trade, Rockwell said, adding that the partners were still negotiating.
Canadian officials, however, tried to put on a brave face.
“Just yesterday, the Minister was very proud to have helped initiate the Joint Declaration on Gender at the WTO as it is one of the ways in which Canada is bringing its Progressive Trade Agenda to the world stage,” said in an email Joseph Pickerill, a spokesman for International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne.
The declaration was signed by 118 countries, said Pickerill.
“As for the WTO itself, we believe it is an important institution that has set the terms for fair, predictable and rule based trade following the Second World War, rules on which we have depended for our global prosperity,” Pickerill said.
In addition, progress was made in Buenos Aires on a number of fronts including support for small businesses, e-commerce, and agriculture, Pickerill said.
On Tuesday, Champagne and Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay signed the Joint Ministerial Statement on Trade in Food and Agricultural Products on the safe use of pesticides.
“While the WTO is not a perfect institution, we look forward to working with other member states to ensure it responds to modern realities and issues important to middle class Canadians,” Pickerill said.
With files from Reuters and The Associated Press