From: Robert Wolfe, Professor, School of Policy Studies, Queen's University
Raymond Saner's paper is a masterful survey of existing plurilaterals, and
why they work. The conclusion, however, does not convince me that the
conclusion to my older paper is wrong-see Wolfe, Robert, (2009) 'The WTO
Single Undertaking as Negotiating Technique and Constitutive Metaphor,'
Journal of International Economic Law 12:4 (December 2009), 835-58.
I think the debate on these issues muddles key terms. First,what is the
"single undertaking"? Here we must distinguish between the Doha single
undertaking (as modified in the July 2004 framework, and again at Hong Kong,
and again in July 2008) and the two principles that a) the WTO acquis is a
single undertaking, and b) that the results of a negotiation have to be a
package. The Doha single undertaking is dead, but I don't think the
principles are--indeed the Doha difficulties may have had little to do with
the single undertaking principles.
Second, what is a "plurilateral"? I think it usually means both 1) a set of
countries smaller than the full WTO membership; and 2) a limited range of
issues. Both are problematic because of the principles of the single
undertaking: 1) countries tend to have asymmetric interests with respect to
any one trading partner; and 2) countries tend to have asymmetric interests
on any one issue. It follows that achieving critical mass with a smaller
group can be hard, and can be harder still if the issues are also limited.
The logic is clearest with the United States. Just as other countries are
unlikely to conclude a major negotiation with the US without some version of
fast track, in the end the US needs the outcome of any negotiation to be a
de facto single undertaking because they will not want other countries to
unravel the deal once it's submitted to Congress. And given the
heterogeneity of Congress, any deal has to have lots in it for different
constituencies. This logic will tend to favour deals with a critical mass of
issues and participants. (A question for another day is whether RTAs meet
Using plurilateral services negotiations, for one example, to advance
understanding of the issues can be helpful, but in the end I think WTO
Members may need some form of broader package of issues to close a deal, and
some agreement on how the results will be incorporated in the WTO acquis.
And that agreement will probably require some as yet unclear bundling of
Doha and new issues, a bundling that will be a single undertaking in effect
if not in name.
From: Professor Raymond Saner, Director, CSEND- Geneva
Plurilateral solutions should be re-considered as possible solution to break
the DDA impasse/from Raymond Saner
Chandrakant Patel, SEATINI Representative in Geneva wrote a very insightful
analysis on the emergence of the "Single Undertaking" concept, or rationale,
almost 10 years ago. The paper describes how the concept was introduced and
became part of trade negotiations and trade discourse spanning the period of
the Uruguay Round to the WTO and subsequent DDA. Most of what is discussed
in the paper is relevant today. To draw on two sections of the paper:
Since its introduction in the 1986 Punta del Este Declaration, the scope of
the single undertaking conceptual approach has been defined and interpreted
in a variety of ways. As a political construct, it should come as no
surprise that it is subjected to varying interpretations. Hence, it is
neither "a new regime principle" nor a binding legal norm in the WTO context
(p.27); and referring to the summary section of the paper, the following:
(This section) concludes that a virtually non-consensual interpretation of
the concept of single undertaking inserted in the draft Final Act of the
Uruguay Round in 1999 facilitated the "all or nothing" imposition of the
results of the negotiations on developing countries. (p.4
Both quotes bring back important reflections as to the implications that the
concept "Single Undertaking" might have for developing countries and his
observations remain relevant up to today. I highly recommend to readers of
the CUTS forum to re-read this insightful paper.
The Doha Development Agenda (DDA) launched in 2001 was supposed to achieve
further trade liberalisation while at the same time taking into account the
needs of developing countries. Ten years have passed since its inception and
no end of the Round is in sight. In this context, plurilateral agreements
might constitute a solution to the impasse of WTO/DDA as well as a basis for
future trade agreements within the WTO context.
We at CSEND have suggested to the trade community to reconsider plurilateral
solutions since 2010 and have now taken a further step which we would like
to share with you. After launching a debate on the CUTS Forum end of last
year, we have revisited the literature on plurilaterals and discussed the
current status of plurilateral agreements within the WTO. The result of our
analysis are available on our website as well as the exchanges on the topic
by various colleagues who send comments after my initial input on the CUTS
Forum at the end of last year (see below).
In summary, I suggest that plurilateral agreements within the WTO context
cold help break the DDA impasse. Plurilateral agreements could be possible
if a sufficient number of member countries create a critical mass of
countries that provide momentum to conclude plurilaterals within the WTO
However, the obstacle to MFN based plurilaterals is the "free-rider" problem
which could be an important de-motivation for members to agree to
plurilaterals. To create the critical mass for new Plurilaterials would
require that adequate commercial benefits become available for those members
who sign up to it in the short term. If significant competitors opt for a
"free rider" position, the critical mass will not be reached. .
All things considered, I would prefer to get the membership to agree to the
start new plurilaterals which have a time limited grace period of non-MFN
status. Once beyond the grace period, new plurilaterals would have to be
either dissolved or opened to full MFN.
New "WTO plurilateralism" would be a counterweight to the proliferation of
FTAs/PTAs which are deepening and moving more and more into the sphere of
national regulatory policy levels. Keeping new trade liberalization and
market access within the WTO is better than more FTAs/PTAs because of the
availability of the WTO DS system but also because the BIT processes which
are outside the current DDA are adding fragmentation, insecurity and
confusion to the larger world trade context. (BITs and their often
inadequate level of transparency was one of the key topics at the World
Investment Forum/UNCTAD XIII meeting in Doha).
The two documents are available at:
CSEND Policy Brief Nr 7; ISSN 2235-8048, at:
Debate on Plurilaterals, at:
Professor Raymond Saner
Single Undertaking: A Straightjacket or Variable Geometry? Chandrakant
Patel, SEATINI Representative in Geneva
One of the pillars of the multilateral trade negotiations is "single
undertaking". In this Working Paper (South Centre, Geneva, May 2003), the
author states: "The characterization of the single undertaking concept, not
surprisingly, varies from the popular "all or nothing", "take it or leave
it", or "something for everyone" formulations; the WTO Secretariat's
"nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" formulation; to the more
academic -- i.e. that single undertaking is a "major structural innovation"
or that it is a "new regime principle"."
This paper analysed several questions in regard to the application of
"single undertaking" to the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations.
It argues: "In particular, any possible Uruguay Round-style application of
single undertaking towards the concluding phase of the Doha Round warrants a
better understanding of the concept and of the responses needed to deal with
Issues relating to "single undertaking" remain relevant and therefore, it is
important to revisit some of these questions.
Read the full paper: