It was being called an “informal” meeting on trade, but with foreign and trade ministers from 24 countries traveling to Oslo and taking part, also from China and Russia, the high-level gathering reflected a major effort to rally forces to “save” international trade and ward off protectionism.
Norway’s Foreign Minister Børge Brende invited them all to the relatively secluded Voksenåsen hotel and conference center in the hills above Oslo for a two-day session heading into the weekend. The goal is to lay the groundwork to finally conclude the so-called Doha Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s global trade talks that began in Doha just after the terrorist attacks on the US in the fall of 2001.
Fifteen year later, progress has been less than satisfactory. As newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported earlier this week, the ambitious plans laid in Doha to remove hindrances to free and fair trade had to be set aside because of disagreements. Now Brende is hoping that a “Doha light” version can be hammered out when the WTO meets in Buenos Aires next year. “I don’t see any other alternative,” Brende told DN.
‘An initiative to positive progress’
So Brende invited top politicians from around the world to start talking together, and in the presence of the WTO’s leader Roberto Azevedo. He was also invited to Oslo at a time when many of those attending are also dealing with everything from the consequences of Britain’s pending withdrawal from the EU to a new wave of protectionism stirred up by the controversial US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Britain, at the very least, faces having to draft new trade agreements with both the EU and many outside the EU like Norway. Brende was in London on Wednesday, on his way home from Japan, to meet with the new British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.
Norway can be protectionistic as well, because of its long-time policies to support and shield its agricultural industry from foreign competition in the form of cheaper and often better products from abroad. At the same time, Norway needs to sell its oil, gas, seafood and other export products overseas, and expects foreign markets to be open and without hindrances. Conflicts arise when Norwegian officials try to have it both ways.
“International cooperation and multilateral trade agreements are important for growth and restructuring of the Norway and the world economy,” Brende stated when the meeting Friday and Saturday was announced. He claimed Norway promotes “an active and strong WTO,” and that the meeting in Oslo is “an initiative to contribute to positive progress in the WTO’s work.”
First Chinese ministerial guest in six years
It’s highly unclear whether the meeting will have any real effect but Brende reasons that dialog is always a good thing. He noted in a column published Thursday in DN how the US is struggling to win approval of a major trade deal among Pacific nations (the so-called TPP) while “many EU countries are skeptical” about a deal between the EU and Canada. Negotiations for the TTIP deal between the EU and the US, meanwhile, “is meeting strong opposition on both sides of the Atlantic,” Brende wrote, just as the “rhetoric” of the US election campaign us full of anti-globalization- and anti-trade talk. “When it can also be documented that the amount of trade hindrances among G20 countries is rising, there’s all reason to sound a warning,” he stated.
Various trade and foreign ministers from Australia, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, Lesotho, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, the US and the EU have confirmed their attendance in Oslo. Norwegian officials appeared pleased, also given recent tensions with both Russia and China.
Norway has just recently come to terms with Russia, however, over charting of the Barents Sea on both sides of their offshore territorial border, to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and agreed once again on fishing quotas in Arctic waters. This weekend also marked the first time that a high-ranking Chinese government official has visited Norway since a diplomatic freeze set in over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobao in 2010. Brende told DN ahead of the meeting, however, that “the bilateral relationship” between Norway and China was not on the agenda. “We will only talk about the WTO,” Brende said.