Regional Trade Agreements: An exception to WTO’s Principles

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International trade has been a fragment of life for a good time now. International trade fundamentally refers to the giving and taking of goods and services followed up between nations. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has a vital part to participate in the international trade, political, issues pertaining to law and global economics emerging in the international business in view of the fact of globalization. A trade agreement (also mentioned as trade pact) is an extensive range of tariffs and taxes. It is a trade treaty that majorly involves investment guarantees. Regional trade agreements are correlative trade agreements between two or more countries. Most of the nations are part of at least one RTA. This article thrives to explain and elaborate about Regional agreements and addresses its importance.

Role of World Trade Organization:

WTO has come about as a sphere’s most influential federation for shrinking trade linked impediments between the nations and establishing new markets. The World Trade Organization is the sole International regulating framework that displaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was introduced in 1948.

The mileage to the nations being associated with the WTO is that they reduce trade-related impediments among themselves. While to the contrary to this, the nations which are not associated with WTO must reach an agreement (negotiate) with trade-related contracts autonomously with trading participants.

WTO in International Commerce

WTO eases execution, regulation and well-ordered obligations relating to trade agreements between the nations.

  • It facilitates gatherings for the trade parleys between its member countries.
  • Resolution of disputation between the associated nations through the accepted directives and guidelines.
  • It collaborates with the IMF (International Monitory Fund) and World Bank in the manifestation of forming consistency in the establishment of international economic policies.

Role of Trade Agreements:

It is observed that international establishments such as the WTO, IMF, and World Bank succour International trade, but this is one side of the story. International business gets improvements from trade agreements (also known as trade blocs). This is where the expression “global economic integration” gets into the picture— from the operation of amending impediments among and between countries to construct an extra consolidated international economy. Trade agreements range in the amounts of unconfined trade, they permit among members and with non-members; each has a distinctive extent of economic amalgamation.

 WTO Principles of the Trading System

The WTO agreements are extensive and complicated because they are legalized subject matter encompassing a large scale of schemes. They are concerned with land management, textiles and clothing, government purchases telecommunications, and product safety, intellectual property, and other more aspects. But there is a list of comprehensible, basic principles mentioned throughout all in these documents. These principles are fundamental in nature under the multilateral trading system.

A closer glance to the following principles:

Trade without discrimination

1. Most-favored-nation (MFN): Regarding treating other people fairly. Under the WTO agreements, nations cannot ordinarily differentiate between their trading countries. Rendering someone an exceptional preference (such as a bottommost custom duty charge for one of their commodities) and same must be done with other WTO members.

This proposition is called the most-favoured-nation (MFN) treatment. It is so crucial that it is mentioned as the first and prime article of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which regulates trade in goods. MFN is also a first concern in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) (Article 4), and General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) (Article 2), however in each and every one agreement, the proposition is manoeuvred moderately distinctively. Conjointly, those three agreements balance all three prime areas of trade manoeuvred by the WTO.

Some special cases are permitted. For instance, nations can establish a free trade agreement that is valid only to goods traded within the classification of a group — selective against commodities from outside. Or they can render growing nations exceptional access to their markets. Or a nation can mark up barriers against commodities that are traded inequitably from particular nations. And in services, nations are permitted, in restricted conditions, to discriminate. However, the agreements only allow these peculiarities under precise situations. In broad, MFN signifies that every time a nation lowers a trade impediment or unlocks a market, it has to treat goods or services same or equally from all its trading partners — whether from developing or developed nations, or feeble or powerful.

2. National treatment: Serving foreigners and natives fairly. Imported and domestically produced commodities should be served equally — especially after the foreign commodities have got access to the market. The same should be appertained to foreign and local services, and to foreign and domestic copyrights, patents, and trademarks. This proposition of “national treatment” (rendering to others the equal treatment as one’s own natives) is also established in all the three prime WTO agreements (Article 3 of GATT, Article 17 of GATS and Article 3 of TRIPS), although once again the proposition is served differently in each of these.

National treatment is applicable only once a good or service or any item of intellectual property has got access to the market. Therefore, imposing customs duty on an import is not a breach of national treatment even if domestically produced goods are not imposed with equivalent tax.

Regional trade agreement (RTA) and the WTO

A regional trade agreement (RTA) is a pact or treaty indicated between two or more incumbencies that elaborates the directives or rules of trade for all endorsers. Specimens of regional trade agreements comprise of the European Union (EU), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),

Regional trade agreements are give-and-take agreements, also called reciprocal trade agreements between two or more countries. Under an RTA, countries “gather together,” creating a global community that eases the motion of goods and services between them

Regional trade agreements (RTAs) are a basic unit in global trade connections. Over the years on end, RTAs have not only expanded in figures but also in profundity and convolution. WTO members and the Secretariat tasks to collect details and encourage deliberations on RTAs to intensify lucidity and to enhance comprehension of their influence on the broader multilateral trading system.

There breathe distinct alternatives of apparatuses to change the level of trade and trade management such as subsidies, tariffs, exports, non-tariff impediments viz quota shares, product-specific quotas, import licensing, products, labelling condition, commodities standards etc. Regional Trade Agreement (RTA) is another kind of apparatus to impact trade structure of an economy. According to WTO Regional Trade Agreement (RTAs) are explained as reciprocal trade agreements amongst two or more nations, including unconfined trade agreements and customs unions. Free trade agreements and partial scope agreements signify for around 90% of the entire RTAs, while customs unions showed for 10%. When it comes to the results of regional trade agreements on trade the factual outcomes are assorted for distinct RTAs.

Many theories in the sphere of Global Trade suggest that Regional Trade Agreements (RTA) profits the country as it aids in expanding the business capacity of a specific economy or a specific region. In particular regional trade agreement, increases trade movement additionally freely among the nations in the association without impediments being uplifted on trade with other countries. Numerous financial experts have written in for as well as in opposition to the RTAs based on the verifiable study. Adam Smith who is the exponent of global trade theory contended that at large trade among countries improves countries’ wealth. Level of the regional trade agreement (RTA) is growing consistently in each sphere of the globe.

Till January 8, 2015, some 604 RTA tidings have been received by the WTO, out of which some 398 were in running.

Types of Regional Trade Agreements:

Regional trade agreements in broad subsist in five kinds which are:

(a) Custom Union

(b) Free Trade Agreement

(c) Common Market

(d) Economic Union

(e) Preferential Trade Agreement.

Custom Union

In custom union, two or more countries who make a union banishing tariffs and non-tariff impediments among themselves but keeping and applying discrete tariffs for other countries and at the same time the member countries assent to keep common external tariffs. Few examples of the customs union are European Union Customs Union (EUCU), Southern African Customs Union SACU and East African Community (EAC). Customs unions are dispositions among nations whereby the member’s assent to permit free trade on commodities within the customs union, and they assent to a common external tariff (CET) on imports from the rest of the globe. It is this CET that differentiates a customs union from a regional trade agreement. It is crucial to observe that although trade is unlimited within the union, customs unions do not permit the unconfined flow of capital and labour among nations who are members. Example of this is the customs union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, which was created in 2010. These nations banished trade impediments among themselves but have also assented to some regular policies and plans for working with non-member nations

Free Trade Agreement:

The free trade agreement is like custom union, but associated nations do not keep common external tariffs. The regular market is the medium where there is an unconfined movement of goods and services, but the main trade impediment remains. In the regular course, all taxes and tariffs are banished for imported products traded within the members associated, but non-tariff impediments remain.

Common Markets:

Common markets are like customs unions in that they banish internal impediments between members (nations) and acquire common external barriers against not parties. This distinctiveness is that regular markets also permit the free flow of funds and resources (e.g., labor) among member nations. The major focal point of the common market is economic connection and the creation of a combined single market. MERCOSUR and ASEAN are the instances of the common market.

Economic Unit:

A furthermore economically consolidated structure is the economic union. Economic unions banish internal impediments, apply common external barriers, allow an unconfined flow of funds and resources (e.g., labor), and use a common set of economic policies and plans. The well-known example of an economic union is the European Union (EU). All parties to the EU use a similar currency, adopt one monetary policy and scheme, and trade with all without paying tariffs.

Preferential Trade Agreement:

A preferential trade agreement is another kind of union where all the member nations of that union reduce the trade impediments Regional trade Agreements amongst nations to get mutual gains, but it does not assure the same because of geographical prejudice.

 Points on RTA

  • Welfare results, which are anticipated from RTAs, are determined on whether the growth in trade is essentially on the cost of non-members.
  • The magnitude of an economy has an essential part in determining the features and goals of RTAs. If a nation is small in GDP and size then it will thrive to gain economic, social, and political security by creating an alliance with a comparatively far-reaching economy.
  • Classification and focal point of Regional Trade Agreement around the globe is distinct from each other because of which a variety of differences must be taken into contemplation while assessing the influence of RTAs.

RTAs as an exception to WTO principles:

The exception to Non-discrimination Principle

Non-discrimination is a central proposition of the WTO. Countries who are members have executed, in general, not to aid one trading partner over another. An exception to this rule is RTAs. These agreements, by their very characteristics, are discriminatory as only their endorsers benefit from more favourable market-access conditions. WTO members acknowledge the authorized part of RTAs which targets at regulating trade between its members, but which do not uplift trade impediments vis-à-vis third parties.

RTAs in Specific situations

WTO members can access RTAs under particular situations which are termed in three sets of guidelines. These guidelines balance the creation and working of customs unions and free-trade spaces balancing trade in commodities, regional or global structures for trade in commodities between developing nation members (Enabling Clause), as well as deals covering trade in services (Article V of the General Agreement on Trade in Services). RTAs must cover largely all trade – unless they are under the Enabling Clause – and aid trade movement more openly among the nations in the RTA without uplifting impediments to trade with the outside globe.

A balanced approach to RTAs

WTO members have also proclaimed that RTAs must persist interdependent to, not a replacement for, the external trading system. Director-General Roberto Azevedo has said that numerous important affairs — such as trade regulation, farming and fisheries subsidies, and services liberalization— can only be handled widely and significantly when everyone has a position at the negotiating table. Further, an external system guarantees the contribution of the compact and most vulnerable nations and succour to subsidize the segregation of developing nations into the global economy.

There are mixed perspectives on RTA’s results on international trade liberalization. Though RTAs are outlined to be advantageous to signatory nations, contemplated advantages may be sabotaged if misrepresentation in funds and resource allocation, and trade and investment deviations are not reduced.

Moreover, the raise in RTAs has created the occurrence of intersecting membership. This can hinder trade movement when traders grapple to encounter numerous assortments of trade rules. Further, as the capacity of RTAs widens to involve policy aspects not facilitated multilaterally, there may be an extension to the likelihood of unpredictability among various agreements. Most mature RTAs balanced related rules, tariff liberalization and guidelines such as defence, trade, standards, and rules of genesis only. Progressively, RTAs have advanced to involve deregulation of services as well as obligations in services rules, competition, investment, intellectual property rights, environment electronic commerce, and labour. This could give rise to facilitation perplexity and application issues.

 WTO Operations on RTAs

Since the formation of the Committee on RTAs (CRTA) in February 1996, WTO various member countries have regularly called attention to the requirement to collect facts, figures and other details on RTAs as well as to facilitate a convention for negotiations on their influence.

Since December 2006, all RTAs have been the subject matter to the plans and structures of the Transparency Mechanism for Regional Trade Agreements. Formed through a General Council decision in December 2006, and appertained conditionally since then, the apparatus regulates particular rules on when a brand-new RTA should be directed to the WTO and the connected and facts to be supplied. This fact authorizes the Secretariat to make ready an accurate presentation on the RTA, which helps WTO members in the contemplation of the agreement. At the 2015 Nairobi Ministerial Conference, WTO members assented to function towards the modification of the contemporary conditional Transparency Mechanism into a perpetual mechanism.

The apparatus has generally been significant in improving lucidity/transparency and making a complete body of information on RTAs that can aid members’ sincere dialogue in the CRTA.

Further, dialogues in the WTO about RTAs are observed as supporting to assure consistent equilibrium and comprehensiveness. At the 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in 2015, WTO members approved a ministerial proclaims directing the Committee on RTAs to have a dialogue on the structured connotations of RTAs for the multilateral structure and their connection with WTO guidelines.


Member nations get advantage from regional trade agreements, specifically in the structure of creation of more job options, under level unemployment rates, and market growth. Also, since trade agreements generally occur with investment assurances, investors who want to put money into developing nations are defended against political danger. Trade-in member nations gain considerable inducements to trade-in brand new markets, thanks to appealing trading terms due to the plans and policies involved in the agreements. Trade agreements unlock a lot of gates for businesses. As they attain entrance to brand new markets, competitiveness becomes more ardent. The enhanced competition propels businesses to create good quality commodities. It also leads to more variety for purchasers. When there is an extensive range of high-quality commodities, businesses can raise purchaser satisfaction. Thus, leading to a boost in economic expansion, the capacity to trade and intention to produce high-quality commodities.


1. Mattoo, A., A. Mulabdic, and M. Ruta. 2017. “Trade Creation and Trade Diversion in Deep Agreements.” Policy Research Working Paper Series 8206, World Bank, Washington, DC.

2. “WTO – Understanding the WTO – The GATT years: from Havana to Marrakesh”.

3.Ruta, M. 2017. “Preferential Trade Agreements and Global Value Chains: Theory, Evidence, and Open Questions.” Policy Research Working Paper Series 8190. World Bank, Washington, DC.


Nitisha Bhardwaj

Student, Chanakya National Law University Patna

Nitisha Bhardwaj is a writer, speaker, and researcher. She has an affinity for International Aviation and Corporate Law. She is a creative thinker and seeks for balance. For any Clarifications, feedback, and suggestion, you can reach her at

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