Since the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, the multilateral trading system has ranked as one of the shining successes of international cooperation. Recently, it was shown to have great resilience in containing protectionist pressures during the 2008 global financial and economic crisis. This was in marked contrast to events surrounding the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when defensive and increasingly hostile trade blocs arose in the interwar period.
However, with the stalling of the Doha Round of trade talks from 2008, the most active trade negotiations have been of a bilateral nature. Even if many of these negotiations have not yet resulted in agreements, they have often overlapped and interacted, creating a trade landscape defined less by clear-cut choices between regionalism and multilateralism – or discrimination and non-discrimination – than by the complex interplay among multiple trade regimes. Much ink has been spilled over their positive or negative impact on multilateralism during the past decades.
More recently, several mega-regional trade negotiations have been initiated with an ambition of deeper integration in a broad range of provisions – including in trade in services, investment, competition and important regulatory areas – which are largely absent from the older generation of regional trade agreements (RTAs) negotiated before GATT became the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995. These new mega-RTAs raise new challenges, and intensify the debate over the relationship between regionalism and multilateralism.