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Multilateralizing Regionalism

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Regional trade agreements (RTAs) have proliferated around the world in the past two decades, and now nearly all members of the WTO are party to at least one. Besides tariffs and rules of origin regulating trade in goods, many RTAs now include provisions on services, investments, technical barriers to trade and competition rules, as well as a host of issues not directly related to trade. The geographic reach of RTAs is expanding, with transcontinental agreements spreading forcefully alongside intra-regional agreements. ‘Multilateralizing Regionalism’ was the title of a major conference held from 10–12 September 2007 at the WTO in Geneva. Brought together in this publication, the conference papers achieve two things. First, they marshall detailed, new empirical work on the nature of the ‘Spaghetti Bowl’ and the problems it poses for the multilateral trade system. Second, they contribute fresh and creative thinking on how to ‘tame the tangle’ of regional trade agreements.

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The landscape of regional trade agreements and WTO surveillance

Regional trade agreements (RTAs) have become so prominent in recent years that they permeate much of the discourse on international trade. The current scale of RTA proliferation is unprecedented both in quantitative and qualitative terms. A bewildering range of geographical configurations and varying policy content characterize the new agreements. This trend is likely to continue. The embrace of RTAs by virtually every trading nation carries systemic implications for the multilateral trading system, most notably through increased discrimination and complexity in trade relations and by undermining the transparency and predictability of trade relations.

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