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The recent emergence of Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs) – that is, negotiating initiatives among a subset of the World Trade Organization (WTO) membership – has reignited the debate over law-making in the WTO. As things stand, the WTO operates on the basis of a widespread expectation that consensus needs to be achieved for any decision to be taken. Agreements that produce rights and obligations only among a subset of the membership (‘plurilaterals’, or Annex 4 agreements) are also subject to the consensus rule and thus remain exceptional. Are JSIs the first move towards redressing the current equilibrium in favour of agreements among a subset of WTO members and, if so, can they be integrated within the current regime absent amendments? Even though consensus decision-making does not necessarily lead to failed negotiations, it is undoubtedly a significant contributory factor when parties hold diverse and unaligned priorities. Contracts signed in the WTO involve increasingly heterogeneous players with diverse priorities. In this article, we argue that the first-best approach to moving away from the current legislative stasis at the multilateral level is to acknowledge that it is high time to consider how to allow an additional degree of ‘variable geometry’ within the multilateral trading system. A textual legal basis for this approach, however, is missing within the WTO legal order. An acceptable alternative would be to acknowledge that the WTO adjudicators (WTO panelists and Appellate Body members), and not the members, will be the ultimate gatekeepers deciding whether agreements among a subset of members can coexist as part of the current multilateral trade framework understood within the context of international law. A necessary precondition for thisalternative approach to flourish will, of course, be the resolution of the current judiciary crisis of the WTO. In either scenario, what will matter at the end of the day is that inter se agreements (that is, agreements among a subset of the WTO membership) will not affect the enjoyment of acquired rights by non-participants nor frustrate the objectives of the multilateral trading system.


International Trade Law | Law


Reprinted from the Journal of World Trade, Volume 56, Issue 1, December 2021, pp. 1-26, with permission of Kluwer Law International.