This article has been written by Ayush Tiwari, a student of Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. The article talks about regional trade agreements, role of World Trade Organisation, their types, transparency mechanism, and their pros and cons. 

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


A regional trade agreement describes unrestricted trade between several countries in a certain area or region. More than half of all commerce in the world is governed by regional trade agreements. Over the last two decades, there has been an increase in regional trade agreements. Regional trade agreements between equal parties can be advantageous to both. Nevertheless, when comparing a wealthy and a poor economy, the larger economy always prevails. By removing all trade and foreign investment restrictions, a regional free trade agreement prevents impoverished economies from using import tariffs to shield their expanding sectors or their farmers from a flood of inexpensive imports. Regional trade agreements, however, can have both positive and negative effects. For instance, they can be appealing as it could be simpler for a small group of nearby nations with comparable issues and cultures to comply with the market opening in a specific area than it would be to do so in a larger forum like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In this regard, they can serve as stepping stones on the path to a global agreement by providing fresh perspectives on rule-making.  Regional trade agreements (RTAs) are a crucial tool in trade negotiations on a global scale. RTAs have increased in frequency over time and have become more complex. In order to improve openness and foster understanding of RTAs’ effects on the more comprehensive multilateral trading system, the World Trade Organisation and its Secretariat gather information and foster debates about RTAs.

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According to the WTO, RTAs are identical trade agreements involving at least two partners that do not take place in the same location. All WTO members presently have an RTA in effect as of June 2016. The RTA Database contains reports, including authentic introductions, on the various regional trade agreements disclosed to the WTO.

Regional agreements, however, run the danger of making it more difficult for nations outside the region to do business with those inside and may inhibit further market openness, thus restricting development potential for everyone. Furthermore, compared to constrained bilateral or regional agreements, broad-based multilateral discussions, including more participants and industries, will offer a greater possibility for mutual advantage.

What exactly are regional and bilateral trade agreements

A regional trade agreement is an agreement made between two or more nations, in which the signatories consent to lower trade barriers like tariffs and quotas. Typically, many nations in a given region will agree to a regional trade agreement. The agreements deal with topics including the protection of intellectual property and commerce in both products and services. Additionally, they usually include clauses or whole chapters pertaining to foreign investment protection.

History of WTO and multilateral trade agreements 

The Bretton Woods Agreement in 1947 and the subsequent establishment of the United Nations are the roots of the multilateral trade system and the WTO.  A global trade agreement for the reciprocal decrease of tariffs on goods and commerce was negotiated between UN member nations soon after the UN Charter came into effect. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was negotiated and agreed upon in Geneva on October 30, 1947, by 23 of the founding 50 UN member nations after the negotiations lasted for two years. It was intended when the GATT was signed that it would serve as a temporary solution until the UN-affiliated International Trade Organisation (ITO) was established. The International Trade Organisation was never operational since the ITO Charter, which was agreed upon in Havana in March 1948, was never completely approved. Therefore, between 1948 and 1995, the only multilateral trade agreement still in effect to regulate international commerce was the GATT (when the WTO was established). It is commonly believed that the UN’s attempts to lower tariffs under the framework of GATT continued, starting in 1948. These multilateral discussions are referred to as “trade rounds,” and they are often credited with the advancement of global trade liberalisation. Each trade round during the GATT’s early years was centred on lowering tariffs.

A wider and more liberal approach was then adopted between 1964 and 1967 (during the ‘Kennedy’ round), and this approach was further developed between 1973 and 1979 during the ‘Tokyo’ round. The WTO and other additional multilateral trade agreements were the products of the most recent round, known as the ‘Uruguay’ round, between 1986 and 1994. The GATT agreements and principles were accepted by the WTO at its inception, and it has ever since managed to oversee and improve them. Through a multilateral trading system, the WTO seeks to lower obstacles to global commerce.

Types of regional trade agreements

The majority of RTAs are designed to encourage trade by lowering tariffs or other non-tariff measures in addition to lowering tariffs and other trade barriers. In essence, they also contain laws and norms that enhance the environment for investments. RTAs vary greatly in their extent and scope and span a variety of economic integration levels. Regional trade agreements include multi-country (plurilateral) agreements as well as reciprocal bilateral open trade and customs zones.

Preferential trade agreements

A preferential trade agreement is a commercial arrangement that grants preferred access to particular goods from particular nations. This entails lowering tariffs but not getting rid of them. This type of economic integration is the least effective. One such arrangement was the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA), involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Free trade agreements

A free trade agreement, or FTA, is a second-level RTA. This entails the total elimination of all trade restrictions separating the two nations, but it still excludes the integration of the labour or capital markets. Under this approach, each agreement participant is free to keep its trade restrictions in place with parties not affiliated with the agreement. 84 percent of all RTAs are FTAs. Members of the FTA are allowed to maintain a variety of their most favoured nations’ trade obstacles against non-members while eliminating or reducing internal tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers (to trade in products and, to a growing extent, services) among themselves. To prevent goods from foreign nations from being transshipped through the member country that has the lowest tariffs, member countries must implement rules-of-origin criteria. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Agreements (AFTA), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) are the most well-known free trade accords.

Customs Union

A Customs Union (CU) is the subsequent phase of integration. A CU goes beyond an FTA by imposing a common external tariff (CET) on imports from other nations. Customs unions often have systems in place to divide tariff money among their constituent nations. The South African Customs Union (SACU), the East African Community (EAC), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Central American Customs Union (CACU) are a few examples of customs unions.

Common market

Common markets are a type of ‘deep integration’ in which the participating nations try to harmonise their institutional frameworks, legal systems, and regulatory frameworks. While a common market system has all the characteristics of a customs union, it also permits the free movement of labour and money among the member nations, along with the free flow of goods (output). Some of the well-known common marketplaces are the Common Market of the Southern Cone (MERCOSUR) as well as the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). The Central American Common Market and the Caribbean Community and Common Market are two further prevalent common markets (CACM).

Economic and Monetary Union

An economic and monetary union is the most extensive RTA, allowing members to freely transfer capital and labour throughout the union, establish common external trade barriers, eliminate all internal trade restrictions, and harmonise their fiscal and monetary policies. Members of this group cooperate on macroeconomic policy and use a single currency. The European Union, which takes the shape of an Economic and Monetary Union, is the most well-known and effective type of regional trade agreement in the world. The West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC), the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), and the Economic Cooperation Organisation are also economic and monetary unions.

WTO’s rules on regional trade agreements

One of the basic pillars of the WTO is non-discrimination. Generally, members have agreed not to give preference to one trading partner over another. RTAs are an exception to this norm. These agreements are discriminatory by definition since only those who sign them get better market access terms. Members of the WTO acknowledge the proper function of RTAs, which are agreements that lower trade barriers with respect to third parties while facilitating commerce between their parties. 

WTO members are permitted to enter RTAs under clear guidelines that are outlined in three sets of rules. These regulations encompass the organisation and operation of customs associations, unrestricted trade areas for the exchange of goods (Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, 1994), and regional or international trade routes for goods between citizens of developing nations (Enabling Clause), as well as agreements governing the exchange of administrative services (Article V of the General Agreement on Trade in Services). RTAs generally need to generously cover all commerce, unless they fall under the Enabling Clause, and let trade flow more freely among the RTA’s member countries without putting up barriers to trade with other countries. 

The impact of RTA on international trade liberalisation is debatable. RTAs are intended to benefit signatory nations, but if resource allocation distortions, as well as trade and investment diversion, are not reduced, predicted gains may be compromised. 

Moreover, the growth of RTAs has created the concept of overlapping membership. This can hinder trade flows when dealers struggle to meet several sets of trade standards. Furthermore, there might be higher risks of inconsistencies among various agreements as the scope of RTAs expands to include areas of policy not regulated multilaterally. The majority of earlier RTAs only addressed tariff liberalisation and associated regulations like trade defence, standards, and rules of origin. RTAs are increasingly expanding to incorporate promises to service rule liberalisation, investment, competition, intellectual property rights, e-commerce, environment, and labour. This can result in regulatory ambiguity and implementation issues.

Additionally, the idea of covering enrollment has been made possible by the growth of RTAs. When traders struggle to comply with various trade regulation arrangements, this might hinder commerce flow. Moreover, there may be increased risks of anomalies across multiple agreements as the scope of RTAs expands to include new territories not controlled multilaterally. The majority of more seasoned RTAs secured tax advancement and connected laws, like trade guards, regulations, and birthplace rules, as it were. RTAs have evolved through time to take into account the development of services as well as obligations for administrative norms, ventures, competition, protected innovation rights, e-commerce, conditions, and work. This might contribute to usage concerns and administrative chaos.

The Committee on Regional Trade Agreements 

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and Article V of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) both contain provisions for RTAs, and the Committee on Regional Trade Agreements (CRTA) is responsible for implementing these provisions. RTAs are now viewed by the Committee on Trade and Development as coming under the Enabling Clause (covering trade agreements between creating nations).

The CRTA’s distinct powers are to consider whether it is necessary to give an explanation of the activity of agreements that ought to be made and to design methods to promote and improve the assessment procedure. The CRTA is also required to take into account the fundamental implications of RTAs for the multilateral trading system and how they relate to one another.

WTO members received a ministerial statement at the Tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in 2015 when they agreed to proceed toward turning the present temporary transparency system into a permanent mechanism without favouring queries with cautionary requirements. It also instructed the CRTA on how to discuss the underlying implications of RTAs for the multilateral trading system and how they relate to WTO regulations.

New transparency mechanism for Regional trade agreements

The WTO General Council recently developed a mechanism for RTA transparency. On December 14th, 2006, the mechanism for new transparency was developed on a temporary basis. The ruling may be found in WTO document WT/L/671, dated December 18, 2006. The following are the key features of the new transparency mechanism:

  • The new transparency system allows for early reporting to the WTO and announcement of any RTA.
  • Members will evaluate the notified RTAs based on the WTO Secretariat’s factual presentation.
  • The application of the Transparency Mechanism for RTAs covered by Articles XXIV and V of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 1994 is the responsibility of the Committee on Regional Trade Agreements (CRTA).
  • The application of the Transparency Mechanism of RTAs coming under paragraph 2(c) of the Enabling Clause is the responsibility of the Committee on Trade and Development (CTD) (trade arrangements between developing countries).
  • The transparency system will be implemented on a provisional basis. Members will examine the decision, make any necessary modifications, and then replace it with a permanent mechanism that is approved as part of the overall Doha Round outcomes. The legal link between this mechanism and certain RTA-related WTO laws will also be examined by the members.

Regional trade agreement negotiations

As a key component of the Doha Round of negotiations, which began in 2001, WTO officials have worked to clarify and enhance WTO regulations on regional trade agreements (RTAs). Since then, people have established a temporary transparency mechanism to examine RTAs and have also agreed to conduct discussions about the effects of RTAs on the multilateral trading system.

Since the interpretation of the regulations is still up for debate, determining whether RTAs comply with WTO standards has been challenging. With the aim of “explaining and strengthening disciplines and practises under the existing WTO agreements pertaining to regional trade agreements,” people agreed to the Doha Declaration in 2001. It also states that “the discussions will take the evolving aspects of regional trade agreements into the negotiating group on rules, which answers to the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), responsible for crafting exchanges on RTAs.

The interim transparency mechanism for surveying RTAs was established by a 2006 General Council Decision, making it the main outcome of the exchanges. The mechanism developed a process through which these RTAs are recognised by WTO individuals – either in the Committee on RTAs or the Committee on Trade and Development – based on an actual initiation by the WTO Secretariat. It also did explain the requirements for the planning of notice of RTAs to the WTO. As part of the transparency mechanism, the WTO database on RTAs was also resolved.

In 2015, during the tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, members of the WTO agreed to proceed toward turning the present temporary transparency process into a permanent mechanism, without prejudice to questions highlighted with warning conditions.

Effects of regional trade agreements on international trade

The quantity of research examining the potential effects that regional trade agreements may have on global commerce has increased in tandem with their prominence and significance as a tool for trade policy. The possibility that regional trade agreements could significantly impede the advancement of trade liberalisation has received a lot of attention. While some benefits may be apparent in the short term, if caution is not exercised, the long-term outcome may be a complex system of preferential trade that drifts further from the idea of multilateralism. Regional trade agreements currently have a far broader scope than the multilateral trading system and have grown more advanced in recent years. For instance, regional trade agreements handle topics like intellectual property and competition, which are difficult in multilateral trade discussions. Additionally, they are expanding geographically, with several regional trade agreements currently being signed by a number of nations from various areas with similar trade policy objectives. This shows that, rather than merely enhancing regional integration, regional trade agreements are increasingly being used to develop political and economic partnerships.

Advantages of regional trade agreements

A regional trade agreement is an agreement between numerous nations. The North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Common Market are two well-known regional trade agreements. The lawmakers of the nations that sign a regional trade agreement must provide their assent. RTAs provide a lot of advantages, which are :

Decreased prices

Regional trade agreements lower the tariffs that apply between the participating nations. Harvard University claims that the World Trade Organisation mandates that regional trade agreements cut tariffs between nations but forbids such nations from raising duties on those that do not take part. People can acquire items from other nations at reduced rates owing to the tariff reduction.

International export

Regional trade agreements provide all nations in an area with trade benefits that raise their overall competitiveness, especially in the markets of nations not party to the trade agreement. A vehicle company may sell automobiles abroad for less money if they can get inexpensive steel from a nation with which they have a regional trade agreement. Regional trade agreements, in accordance with Harvard University, might also inspire other countries who are not parties to the trade agreement to lower their trade barriers.

Rewarding allies

Through a regional trade pact, allies may benefit. Harvard University claims that since Chile and New Zealand opposed the Iraq War, the United States put off establishing trade deals with them. A government may also choose to negotiate free trade agreements with countries that develop comparable political and economic systems and refrain from doing so with those that abuse human rights.

Conflict resolution

Processes for resolving trade disputes are included in regional trade agreements. Conflicts between nations occur over currency manipulation, the dumping of goods at cheap prices, and agricultural subsidies. The trade agreement stipulates uniform arbitration procedures and guarantees that trade disputes are settled in accordance with these procedures. Trade agreements frequently identify the place in which trade disputes are addressed, according to Cornell University, which eliminates disagreements regarding which organisation has jurisdiction over the trade issue.

Dispute remedies

Regional trade agreements specify dispute resolution procedures. According to the terms of a trade agreement, a country that engages in trade practices that are detrimental to a trading partner may be held legally liable.

Member nations use the unrestricted movement of commodities and services to boost exports and domestic output.

Creating jobs

Businesses are encouraged to boost production by the larger market.  In the end, they boost the home economy by adding additional employment and money. Workers’ mobility is increased when free flow incorporates production elements, allowing them to find employment in other member nations.

A stronger negotiating position in treaty negotiations

For instance, the creation of an economic union strengthens and expands the EU economy. It strengthens its negotiating position in trade deals with non-member nations.

More choices

The benefits of free trade are felt by consumers. They have access to more affordable, higher-quality goods. The removal of trade restrictions leads to higher supply, greater variety, and cheaper prices for goods.

Disadvantages of regional trade agreements

Selective tariff reduction might not increase the welfare of the people. This is only done so that trade can be shifted from more productive producers in non-member nations to less productive producers in member countries as a result of tariff preferences.

For instance, once NAFTA was ratified, East Asian textile exporters found themselves at a disadvantage when competing with Mexican producers in the US market. Despite being less effective than Asian exporters, NAFTA benefits Mexican businesses.

Other drawbacks of regional trade agreements include:

Trade deflection

Non-member nations would use the tariff differential for their own gain if the agreement only reached the free trade area level.

Increased reliance on the economy

When one of the member nations experiences a recession, it might swiftly spread to the other members. A prime example is the late 2009 Eurozone debt crisis. Greece was where the crisis first began, and it quickly extended to nations like Italy and Spain.

Reduction in economic autonomy

Member nations undertake coordinated economic strategies under economic unions. It might not be suitable for each member country’s economic interests. Policies may benefit members with robust economies while largely disregarding the interests of other members.

Domestic industrial bankruptcy

Because of inefficiency and low competitiveness, increased competition destroys the domestic sector. The pressure increases if the sector absorbs a sizable number of people. If regional trade agreements are only at the free trade area level, labour mobility is generally very low.

The evolution of regional trade agreements

Despite the establishment of the WTO and the global trading system, there has been a surge in regional trade agreements in recent years. One rationale for this is the WTO’s slowdown and relative inefficiency as a tool for building a system of free trade between nations. The WTO’s trade rounds have been longer and harder to wrap things up as they’ve gotten more liberal and tried to handle bigger concerns; the most recent round, the “Uruguay” round, lasted for eight years.  Perhaps it is not unexpected that the many trade liberalisation-related decisions that must be taken unanimously frequently take a long time. It is therefore not unexpected that the demand for a complete agreement places a cap on how far any trade reform agreement can advance. Additionally, there are several external variables to take into account, including politics and economic development, both of which affect discussions. The present challenges facing the ‘Doha’ round’s completion serve as an excellent example of how slowly WTO trade round discussions move. These restrictions on the WTO may be the reason why bilateral and regional trade agreements have recently taken centre stage in global commerce.


Due to the advantages of the reciprocal benefits of regional trade agreements, many developing nations are signing them. Arrangements are desirable and provide a far quicker trade liberalisation option than what the ‘Doha’ round is currently able to provide. However, the growth of regional trade agreements has led to a complicated web of overlapping accords, which many people worry may harm developing nations since they are poorly prepared to handle such a high level of complexity.

There are worries that many developing nations are agreeing to deals that may deteriorate over time since regional trade agreements are by their very nature discriminatory. Small businesses and emerging nations that cannot manage chaotic structures will thus suffer in the long term. The most common type of reciprocal trade liberalisation in the last fifteen years has by far been regionalism. Trade economists, many of whom are worried about the distortions from the discriminatory practices inherent to these arrangements, have been sceptical of this tendency.


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