Global Rulemaking and Regionalism in a Post-Neoliberal World Trade System

Rafael Sakr

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What are regional trade agreements (RTAs) for, how are they conceived, constituted and governed in and through international law? The project addresses these questions by historicising and examining RTAs and their central role in the contemporary world trading system.

My starting point is the continuous deadlock of multilateral negotiations since 2001, which has paralysed the World Trade Organization’s rulemaking function. As a consequence, WTO rules have not kept pace with economic and technological transformations. States gradually reacted by turning to RTAs. With RTAs becoming the primary sites of global rulemaking, recent literature has analysed their content and form to show their (potential) impact on the future of world trade. However, it uncritically incorporates a conception that assigns RTAs the function of market integration instruments. The conception can be useful, yet it has been applied without an adequate understanding of its serious effects on global rulemaking.

This project aims to fill that gap through three innovative contributions. First, it will show that present-day RTAs are highly homogeneous despite several socio-economic factors suggesting otherwise. Second, it will suggest that the conventional conception of RTAs exerts a dominant influence in determining RTAs’ function, partially explaining their homogeneity and disregard for partners’ distinctiveness and inequalities. Third, it will argue for an approach to RTAs, which proceeds from an innovative understanding of their embedded and potential functions. Specifically, an interdisciplinary methodology — grounded in social sciences and humanities (broadly) and conceptual-legal history and socio-legal constructivism (in particular) — will be deployed to combine three methods with which I have experience: archival research, discourse analysis, and unstructured interviews.

Therefore, the project will contribute to policy and academic debates by rethinking a timely and important socio-legal phenomenon — global rulemaking through regionalism — by undertaking an interdisciplinary critique of RTAs’ function in today’s world trading system.

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