The structure of the WTO is dominated by its highest authority, the Ministerial Conference, composed of representatives of all WTO members, which is required to meet at least every two years and which can take decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements.
The day-to-day work of the WTO, however, falls to a number of subsidiary bodies; principally the General Council, also composed of all WTO members, which is required to report to the Ministerial Conference. As well as conducting its regular work on behalf of the Ministerial Conference, the General Council convenes in two particular forms - as the Dispute Settlement Body, to oversee the dispute settlement procedures and as the Trade Policy Review Body to conduct regular reviews of the trade policies of individual WTO members.
The General Council delegates responsibility to three other major bodies - namely the Councils for Trade in Goods, Trade in Services and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property. The Council for Goods oversees the implementation and functioning of all the agreements (Annex 1A of the WTO Agreement) covering trade in goods, though many such agreements have their own specific overseeing bodies. The latter two Councils have responsibility for their respective WTO agreements (Annexes 1B and 1C) and may establish their own subsidiary bodies as necessary.
Three other bodies are established by the Ministerial Conference and report to the General Council. The Committee on Trade and Development is concerned with issues relating to the developing countries and, especially, to the "least-developed" among them. The Committee on Balance of Payments is responsible for consultations between WTO members and countries which take trade-restrictive measures, under Articles XII and XVIII of GATT, in order to cope with balance-of-payments difficulties. Finally, issues relating to WTO's financing and budget are dealt with by a Committee on Budget.
Each of the four plurilateral agreements of the WTO - those on civil aircraft, government procurement, dairy products and bovine meat - establish their own management bodies which are required to report to the General Council.
Representation in the WTO and economic groupings
The work of the WTO is undertaken by representatives of member governments but its roots lie in the everyday activity of industry and commerce. Trade policies and negotiating positions are formulated in capitals, usually with a substantial advisory input from private firms, business organizations, farmers as well as consumer and other interest groups. Most countries have a diplomatic mission in Geneva, sometimes headed by a special Ambassador to the WTO, whose officials attend meetings of the many negotiating and administrative bodies at WTO headquarters. Sometimes expert representatives are sent directly from capitals to put forward their governments' views on specific questions.
As a result of regional economic integration - in the form of customs unions and free trade areas - and looser political and geographic arrangements, some groups of countries act together in the WTO with a single spokesperson in meetings and negotiations.
The largest and most comprehensive grouping is the European Union and its 15 member states. The EU is a customs union with a single external trade policy and tariff. While the member states coordinate their position in Brussels and Geneva, the European Commission alone speaks for the EU at almost all WTO meetings. The EU is a WTO member in its own right as are each of its member states.
A lesser degree of economic integration has so far been achieved by the countries which are GATT members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam. Nevertheless, they have many common trade interests and are frequently able to coordinate positions and to speak with a single voice.
Among other groupings which occasionally present unified statements is the Latin American Economic System (SELA) and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group (ACP). More recent efforts at regional economic integration - for instance, NAFTA (Canada, US and Mexico) and MERCOSUR (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) - have not yet reached the point where their constituents frequently have a single spokesperson on WTO issues.
A well-known alliance in the Uruguay Round - bringing together a similarity of trade interests rather than a regional identity - was the Cairns Group which comprised, and still comprises, agricultural exporting nations from developed, developing and East European countries.