Back in April, I wrote:
One such danger is that FTAs might be a means for the US or EU to try to lock in first-mover advantages in shaping regulatory standards (such as technical barriers to trade). While preferential tariffs can be undone relatively easy by further tariff cuts, plurilateral agreements that promulgate the adoption of a larger economy’s preferred technical standard might serve to determine which standard is later adopted multilaterally. A first mover might gain at the expense of others if its preferred standard is worse for world welfare.
A new WTO report tackles this very issue:
Director-General Pascal Lamy, in launching the World Trade Report 2011 on 20 July 2011, warned that preferential trade agreements (PTAs) “may lock in their members to a particular regulatory regime reducing the potential for trade to prosper with countries outside the arrangement”. “The new challenge posed by deep PTAs to the multilateral trading system is one of market segmentation because regulatory systems, which can become divergent, have now more importance on trade flows than tariffs,” he added…
In fact PTAs of today are less about tariff preferences and more about regulatory measures that were once considered the domain of national rather than international economic policy. This change is occurring partly because of changes in the way production is being organized internationally with the rise of global production networks. To prosper, these production networks require an enabling regulatory environment that provides stronger investor protection, better infrastructural services, freedom of movement of corporate personnel, protection to intellectual property rights, and facilitation of trade. The demand for governance in these policy areas is being met by the supply of deep PTAs…
Another idea would be that we should not ignore the potential difficulties that deep PTAs can give rise to on the regulatory side. One can observe in the sprawl of agreements what can only be called “families” of PTAs, with each family adopting a particular approach to important policy areas such as technical barriers to trade or competition policy. The peril here is that PTAs may lock-in their members to a particular regulatory regime reducing the potential for trade to prosper with countries outside the arrangement.
In a nutshell, the new challenge posed by deep PTAs to the multilateral trading system is one of market segmentation because regulatory systems, which can become divergent, have now more importance on trade flows than tariffs. This is not a statement about the legitimacy of these regulatory systems. It is a factual assessment of their impact on economies of scale, which is what the WTO should care about.
The report, titled “The WTO and preferential trade agreements: From co-existence to coherence”, is available online.