WTO members reviewed six regional trade agreements (RTAs) at a meeting of the Committee on RTAs on 1 April 2019. The new chair of the Committee, Ambassador Carlos Mario Foradori of Argentina, presided at this first Committee meeting of 2019
The Committee is important to the functioning of the WTO, Ambassador Foradori said, adding that he would hold consultations to appoint a vice-chair to add greater momentum to the work of the Committee. The chair said he aims to help resolve the Committee’s longstanding issues, noting later in the meeting the backlog of RTA notifications and considerations.
Consideration of RTAs
The Committee considered the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement Between Hong Kong, China and Macao, China, which immediately liberalised all bilateral trade in goods on 1 January 2018. The two parties also improved the coverage and the depth of their commitments on trade in services. Hong Kong, China said the Agreement provides the framework for economic cooperation conducive for long-term economic growth of the two parties. Macao, China added that Hong Kong, China was a key trade and investment partner and that the Agreement would contribute positively to their bilateral relationship.
As for the Chile-Thailand Free Trade Agreement, Chile will eliminate duties on all imports from Thailand while Thailand will do the same on 99% of tariff lines by 2023. Both countries will also liberalize a number of services sectors. Chile said bilateral trade has expanded and Thailand has become a main destination for Chilean exports to Southeast Asia under the Agreement, which entered into force on 5 November 2015. Thailand said it strongly believes bilateral trade will continue to grow over the years.
The Committee also reviewed the China-Georgia Free Trade Agreement, under which Georgia will liberalize 96.4 % of tariff lines on imports from China while China will liberalize 93.7 %. Georgia noted that negotiations for the Agreement, which entered into force on 1 January 2018, took seven months and that it was the only country in the Eurasian region to have a preferential agreement with China. The Agreement brings together the economies of the two countries despite their differing development models and size, Georgia said. China said the goods and services agreement has deepened the economic relations of the two parties in a mutually beneficial manner.
The Georgia-European Free Trade Association (EFTA) Free Trade Agreement, meanwhile, entered into force on September 1, 2017 for Georgia with Iceland and Norway and on May 1,2018 with Liechtenstein and Switzerland. It liberalized around 90 % of trade in goods among the parties, including significant agricultural liberalization. The parties’ commitments on trade in services broadly match their existing services commitments at the WTO, with some improvements in certain sub-sectors. Moreover, the Agreement includes provisions on intellectual property, government procurement, competition and trade and sustainable development. Switzerland on behalf of the EFTA states said it was indeed a comprehensive and modern trade agreement.
Members also considered the accession of Panama to the Central American Common Market (CACM). Panama’s accession to the Central American Common Market in 2013 paved the way for it to eliminate duties on at least 95% of trade from the other parties in different years between 2013 and 2028. With the objective to achieve a common commercial policy, Panama also adopted the Central American common external tariff on 30% of lines. Guatemala, speaking for itself and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama said the CACM’s objective is to increase the competitiveness of the region. The accession of Panama is highly significant for the region, Guatemala said, as it improves access for Central American traders, and fosters investment.
As for the Accession of Ecuador to the Trade Agreement between the European Union, Colombia and Peru, the EU said the Agreement is tailored to the development needs of Ecuador and that already remarkable results of trade expansion and enhanced trade facilitation have been observed under the Agreement. Ecuador said non-oil exports have increased under the Agreement while its industries have enjoyed better access to imports of EU machinery and parts. Ecuador joined the Agreement between the European Union and Colombia and Peru covering goods and services in 2017. The EU and Ecuador will eliminate all duties on around 97% of lines by 2027 and 2034 respectively. The Agreement also improves the services commitments of both parties in a number of sectors.
Members took the opportunity to ask questions and comment on the RTAs under consideration. Some of the RTAs, it was noted, went deeper than existing WTO rules in the areas of domestic regulation, customs procedures, trade facilitation and e-commerce.
The chair told members that the list of RTAs currently in force but that have not been notified to the WTO has grown to 83, with the addition of four more RTAs since the last Committee meeting in November 2018. The chair further noted that factual presentations for 19 RTAs involving only WTO members and those for a further 28 RTAs involving non-members remain pending, counting goods and services agreements separately.
The United States said members should take the list seriously while the EU and China also underlined the importance of improving members’ compliance with transparency obligations. Parties to the Gulf Cooperation Council customs union and the Latin American Integration Association (LAIA) were asked again by the US and EU to respond to questions about pending work concerning their respective RTAs.
The next meeting of the Committee is scheduled for September 17-18, 2019.