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The World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi reached its final scheduled day with key issues ranging from e-commerce tariffs to fishing subsidies still under negotiation and mixed results as the likeliest outcome.

The biennial gathering of countries from more than 160 WTO members this week is aiming to reinvigorate the trade arbiter and negotiating forum at a time of growing geopolitical fragmentation and as armed conflicts weigh on global economic activity.

While numerous delegations entered the week expressing optimism, many of the contentious details are still being worked out in closed-door discussions. India has often found itself at the center of the conversation on issues like duties on digital trade and agricultural subsidies.

In a sign of the difficulties to narrow the differences, delegates were considering various options on the eve of the final day, including concluding the ministerial meeting without a final joint statement of unanimity or a watered-down version with a chair’s declaration on some unresolved topics, people familiar with the matter said.

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In the end, they decided to keep negotiating with the possibility to extend into an unscheduled extra day on Friday, the people added, on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.

“Some things are proceeding I think in a good way — others I’m not so sure,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said at an early briefing on Thursday. “Each of these makes an impact on the ground.”

Here’s what we know so far:

E-commerce moratorium: The week began with a renewal of the prohibition on tariffs in place over the past 25 years as the top prize for global companies and business associations. India, Indonesia and South Africa were the known likely opponents.

In a closed-door session this morning, members discussed the way forward – making it permanent, letting it lapse or a compromise of extending it for another two years. On one side of the debate are developing nations that want the ability to put tariffs on digital trade — or at least are threatening to do so as a negotiating tactic. On the other side is the majority of economies that want to keep the global Internet free of import duties.

‘Too Important’

“This is too important to play with, because the reality is if you want to see e-commerce, if you want to see the digital economy prosper, a fundamental building block is you don’t put tariffs on it,” said John Denton, head of the International Chamber of Commerce.

A European Union official warned that the moratorium is very important as it would affect 25% of global trade and could apply to any electronic transmissions — potentially online postings and video streaming. But the extension is also important for developing nations, otherwise it could create new barriers for entrepreneurs seeking markets abroad, the EU official added.

Read More: Streaming a Movie Abroad May Soon Come With Taxes at the Border

But Indonesia on Wednesday was digging it its heels. “It’s about securing the right to regulate” said Djatmiko Bris Witjaksono, Indonesia’s trade ministry director general for international trade negotiations.

Divisions clearly remain, with a WTO diplomat from a western country saying on Wednesday night that it would be pretty unthinkable to lift the moratorium.

Fisheries agreement: India has been vocal with a position that countries like itself that have millions of subsistence fishermen need to be taken into consideration when cracking down on subsidies. “Since we are not a part of the problem, we first need to know those countries who are responsible for the problem,” Trade Minister Piyush Goyal told Bloomberg News on Wednesday. “They have to answer, not me.”

Read More: India Denies Blocking WTO Progress, Wants Justice and Fairness

Okonjo-Iweala tried to temper expectations about discussions on agriculture and fisheries. “I’m always cautious because one action by one member can upset the balance,” she said.

Djatmiko said that for Indonesia and India, it’s about “daily life and death” and “how do we feed our people.”

Yet Okonjo-Iweala has said subsidy limits are critical to ensure fishery sustainability for 260 million people who depend on oceans for their livelihoods.

Public stockholding: Whatever the name may sound like to Wall Street, it’s not about individuals owning equities, but rather the right of countries to buy grains from farmers at predetermined prices. India has championed the program to feed its more than 800 million poor people, arguing that it represents a measure to ensure food security. But big agricultural exporters, including Australia and Brazil, say that it distorts trade and keeps them from exporting to the world’s most populous market.

Djatmiko said that for Indonesia and India, both the fisheries and public stockholding issues are about “daily life and death” and “how do we feed our people.”

Thailand, which devotes about half of its farmland to cultivating rice, clashed with India this week, accusing New Delhi of exploiting its subsidized rice exports to dominate the global rice market.

Resolving Disputes

Dispute settlement: This issue won’t likely be fully fixed this week, and as Okonjo-Iweala noted, the WTO process still has the rest of the year to deliver a result.

The US has suggested moving to a one-tier system, while a broad majority of countries advocates for keeping an appellate body as part of a dispute resolution system. The topic is one that will probably continue following the ministerial conference, with an eye on achieving agreement during the rest of 2024.

EU officials were encouraged about the good progress made to address the flaws of the dispute settlement system over the recent years although remained cautious about whether the WTO members would finally agree on a fully functional dispute settlement system with the appellate body by the year-end deadline.

Final text: As of early Thursday, WTO members have agreed on 17 paragraphs in the declaration. There are contentious positions on trade and sustainability, investment facilitation development, sustainable agriculture, the cost of remittances, technology transfer and e-commerce which are being aggressively debated. While the EU is pushing for inclusion of sustainable agriculture in the text, countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and India along with several African nations oppose it on the grounds that it will impact their policy space and economic development, according to people familiar with the private discussions.

Similarly, a paper submitted by India on lowering the cost of remittances is also being opposed by a group of nations.

An original fisheries deal and a deal on vaccines at the ministerial meeting two years ago “demonstrated that the WTO still has life left in it,” said Bill Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Let’s see what they can produce this week before drawing too negative a conclusion.”

--With assistance from Abeer Abu Omar and Vonnie Quinn.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.