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Kemi Badenoch’s Mission in Abu Dhabi: Insights from WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference

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This week over 150 trade ministers from around the world gathered in Abu Dhabi for the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) many commentators have been pessimistic about the prospects for a successful event. 

Secretary of State for Business and Trade, and the front runner to be the next Conservative Party leader, Kemi Badenoch is leading the UK’s delegation along with four-time trade minster Greg Hands and Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for International Development. 

In our post Brexit world Ms Badenoch has gone to protect British businesses from “global trade barriers and protectionism” as well as to “maintain tariff-free digital trade”. 

The challenge to the existing moratorium on border tariffs on digitally delivered services is symptomatic of the current global challenges and is seen as a surrogate for other disputes, including Prime Minister Modi’s need to protect Indian farmers in a year when the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls.

For the body whose sole purpose is to maintain the smooth and free flow of global trade, the growth of economies like China and India was always going to raise issues for a rules-based organisation such as the WTO. Prime Minister Modi’s flexing of India’s economic muscles while China parades its military strength and western economies grow more reticent it their dealings with it, comes at a worrying time for free trade when added to Russian aggression, Middle East uncertainty and the possible re-election of the WTO sceptic Donald Trump. 

As geopolitical tensions increase, 2024 is a critical year where 3.2 billion people, across 40 countries will elect a new leader; many are rightly concerned about the possibilities of progress or even the prospects for the global economy.

Elections in the European Union and the appointment of a new Commission will also add to uncertainty with the implementation of policies like the Green Deal and a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) causing concerns both at home as well as abroad. The WTO will be a key future battleground as to whether policies like CBAM have any hope of an agreed strategy to tackle global CO2 emissions or whether protectionism will win out.

But in an election year UK Ministers focus on promoting their trade successes and take the opportunity for meet in the sidelines with key trade partners. Ms Badenoch hopes to progress talks on a UK-Gulf trade deal as well as the chance of discussions with her Indian counterpart to progress the much-hyped UK-India FTA before both countries go to the polls.

Greg hands will also take the opportunity to meet with representatives from the much vaunted CPTPP (an Asia-Pacific trade bloc made up of 11 other countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) ahead of the hoped-for UK’s ratification and entry into force expected later this year.

However, now that the shackles of EU membership have been cast off, UK business is still waiting for the promised Brexit Bonus of increased global free trade. With a General Election on the horizon progress will continue to be slow as potential partners anticipate a change of government and seek a potentially better deal with a new established and more stable UK partner. 

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