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1.6 The Uruguay Round

Learning Objective

  1. Learn how the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) greatly expanded the coverage of trade liberalization efforts to previously uncovered sectors.

The Uruguay Round was the last of eight completed rounds of the GATT. Discussion for the round began in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1986, and it was hoped that the round would be completed by 1990. However, impasses were frequent, and the round was not finalized until 1994. One reason for the delay is that this round incorporated many new issues in the negotiations.

In earlier rounds, the primary focus was always a continuing reduction in the bound tariff rates charged on imported manufactured goods. As a result of seven completed GATT rounds, by the mid-1980s tariffs in the main developed countries were as low as 5 percent to 10 percent and there was less and less room for further liberalization. At the same time, there were a series of trade issues that sidestepped the GATT trade liberalization efforts over the years. In those areas—like agriculture, textiles and apparel, services, and intellectual property—trade barriers of one sort or another persisted. Thus the ambitious objective of the Uruguay Round was to bring those issues to the table and try to forge a more comprehensive trade liberalization agreement. The goals were reached by establishing a series of supplementary agreements on top of the traditional tariff reduction commitments of the GATT. A few of these agreements are highlighted next.

The Agreement on Agriculture (AoA)

Protections and support for agricultural industries began wholeheartedly during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Not only were tariffs raised along with most other import products, but a series of price and income support programs were implemented in many countries. When the first GATT agreement was negotiated, special exceptions for agriculture were included, including an allowance to use export subsidies. Recall that export subsidies are subject to retaliation under the antisubsidy code but that requirement was negated for agricultural products. This enabled countries to keep prices for farm products high in the domestic market and, when those prices generated a surplus of food, to dump that surplus on international markets by using export subsidies.

The result of this set of rules implemented worldwide was a severe distortion in agricultural markets and numerous problems, especially for developing countries, whose producers would regularly be forced to compete with low-priced subsidized food for the developed world.

The intention at the start of the Uruguay Round was a major reduction in tariffs and quotas and also in domestic support programs. Indeed, in the United States, the Reagan administration initially proposed a complete elimination of all trade-distorting subsidies to be phased in over a ten-year period. What ultimately was achieved was much more modest. The Uruguay Round agreement missed its deadlines several times because of the reluctance of some countries, especially the European Community (EC), to make many concessions to reduce agricultural subsidies.

Countries did agree to one thing: to make a transition away from quota restrictions on agricultural commodity imports toward tariffs instead—a process called tarifficationA process of converting import quotas to import tariffs. WTO countries agreed to tariffication for all commodities in the Uruguay Round Agreement.. The logic is that tariffs are more transparent and would be easier to negotiate downward in future World Trade Organization (WTO) rounds. A second concession countries made was to accept at least low levels of market access for important commodities. For many countries, important food products had prohibitive quotas in place. A prime example was the complete restriction on rice imports to Japan. The mechanism used to guarantee these minimum levels was to implement tariff-rate quotas. A tariff-rate quotaa low tariff set on a fixed quota of imports and a high tariff set on any imports that occur over that quota. sets a low tariff on a fixed quantity of imports and a high tariff on any imports over that quota. By setting the quota appropriately and setting a relatively low tariff on that amount, a country can easily meet its target minimum import levels.

The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)

Trade in services has become an increasingly important share of international trade. Trade in transportation, insurance, banking, health, and other services now accounts for over 20 percent of world trade. However, trade in services is not restricted by tariffs, largely because services are not shipped in a container on a ship, truck, or train. Instead, they are transmitted in four distinct ways. First, they are transmitted by mail, phone, fax, or the Internet; this is called cross-border supply of services, or Mode 1. Second, services are delivered when foreign residents travel to a host country; this is called consumption abroad, or Mode 2. Third, services trade occurs when a foreign company establishes a subsidiary abroad; this is called commercial presence, or Mode 3. Finally, services are delivered when foreign residents travel abroad to supply them; this is called presence of natural persons, or Mode 4. Because of the transparent nature of services, economists often refer to services as “invisibles trade.”

Because services are delivered invisibly, services trade is affected not by tariffs but rather by domestic regulations. For example, the United States has a law in place called the Jones Act, which prohibits products being transported between two U.S. ports on a foreign ship. Consider this circumstance: a foreign ship arrives at one U.S. port and unloads half its cargo. It then proceeds to a second U.S. port where it unloads the remainder. During the trip between ports 1 and 2, the ship is half empty and the shipping company may be quite eager to sell cargo transport services to U.S. firms. After all, since the ship is going to port 2 anyway, the marginal cost of additional cargo is almost zero. This would be an example of Mode 1 services trade, except for the fact that the Jones Act prohibits this activity even though these services could be beneficial to both U.S. firms and to the foreign shipping company.

The Jones Act is only one of innumerable domestic regulations in the United States that restrict foreign supply of services. Other countries maintain numerous regulations of their own, restricting access to U.S. and other service suppliers as well. When the original GATT was negotiated in the 1940s, services trade was relatively unimportant, and thus at the time there was no discussion of services regulations affecting trade. By the time of the Uruguay Round, however, services trade was increasingly important, and yet there were no provisions to discuss regulatory changes that could liberalize services trade. The Uruguay Round changed that.

As a result of Uruguay Round negotiations, GATT member countries introduced the General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS. The GATS includes a set of specific commitments countries have made to each other with respect to market access, market access limitations, and exceptions to national treatment in specified services. For example, a country may commit to allowing foreign insurance companies to operate without restrictions. Alternatively, a country may specify limitations perhaps restricting foreign insurance company licenses to a fixed number. A country can also specify a national treatment exception if, say, domestic banks are to be granted certain privileges that foreign banks are not allowed.

Most importantly, if exceptions have not been specified, countries have agreed to maintain most-favored nation (MFN) and national treatment with respect to services provision. This is an important step in the direction of trade liberalization largely because a previously uncovered area of trade that is rapidly growing is now a part of the trade liberalization effort.

The Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC)

During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, as tariffs were being negotiated downward, another type of trade restriction was being used in the textile and apparel industry: voluntary export restraints. A voluntary export restraint (VER) is a restriction set by a government on the quantity of goods that can be exported out of a country during a specified period of time. Often the word “voluntary” is placed in quotes because these restraints were often implemented upon the insistence of the importing nations.

For example, in the mid 1950s, U.S. cotton textile producers faced increases in Japanese exports of cotton textiles that negatively affected their profitability. The U.S. government subsequently negotiated a VER on cotton textiles with Japan. Afterward, textiles began to flood the U.S. market from other sources like Taiwan and South Korea. A similar wave of imports affected the nations in Europe.

The United States and Europe responded by negotiating VERs on cotton textiles with those countries. By the early 1960s, other textile producers, who were producing clothing using the new synthetic fibers like polyester, began to experience the same problem with Japanese exports that cotton producers faced a few years earlier. So VERs were negotiated on exports of synthetic fibers, first from Japan and eventually from many other Southeast Asian nations. These bilateral VERs continued until eventually exporters and importers of textile products around the world held a multilateral negotiation resulting in the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA) in 1974. The MFA specified quotas on exports from all major exporting countries to all major importing countries. Essentially, it represented a complex arrangement of multilateral VERs.

The MFA was renewed periodically throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and it represented a significant setback in the pursuit of trade liberalization. Thus, as a part of the Uruguay Round discussions, countries agreed to a significant overhaul of the MFA. First, the agreement was brought under the control of the WTO and renamed the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC). Second, countries decided to phase out the quotas completely over a ten-year transition period ending on January 1, 2005.

That transition to a quota-less industry did occur as scheduled; however, it is worth noting that many countries continue to maintain higher-than-average tariffs on textile and apparel products. Therefore, one still cannot say that free trade has been achieved.

Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)

One major expansion of coverage of a trade liberalization agreement was the inclusion of intellectual property rights (IPR) into the discussion during the Uruguay Round. IPR covers the protections of written materials (copyrights), inventions (patents), and brand names and logos (trademarks). Most countries have established monopoly provisions for these types of creations in order to spur the creation of new writing and inventions and to protect the investments made in the establishment of trademarks. However, many of these protections have been unequally enforced around the world, resulting in a substantial amount of counterfeiting and pirating. The world is abound in fake CDs and DVDs, Gucci and Coach purses, and of course the international favorite, Rolex watches.

To harmonize the IPR protections around the world and to encourage enforcement of these provisions, countries created an IPR agreement called the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, or TRIPS. The TRIPS intends to both encourage trade and protect writers, inventors, and companies from the theft of their hard work and investments.

Other Agreements

What is listed and discussed above are just a few of the agreements negotiated during the Uruguay Round. In addition, any round of trade discussions provides an excellent forum for consideration of many other issues that are of particular interest to specific industries. Some of the others include the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, which provides guidelines for countries on food safety and plant and animal trade; an agreement on antidumping; the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures; the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS); the Agreement on Import-Licensing Procedures; the Agreement on Customs Valuation; the Preshipment Inspection Agreement; the Rules of Origin Agreement; and finally, several plurilateral agreements (meaning they don’t cover everybody) concerning civilian aircraft, government procurement, and dairy products.

Key Takeaways

  • The Uruguay Round of the GATT resulted in numerous new trade-liberalizing agreements among member countries, including the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the Agreement on Agriculture, the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC), and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), among others.
  • The GATS involved commitments to reduce regulations restricting international trade in services.
  • The ATC involved commitments to eliminate the quota system established in the 1970s on textile and apparel products.
  • The Agreement on Agriculture involved some modest commitments to reduce support for the agricultural industry.
  • The TRIPS agreement involved commitments to standardize the treatment and enforcement of intellectual property rights.


  1. Jeopardy Questions. As in the popular television game show, you are given an answer to a question and you must respond with the question. For example, if the answer is “a tax on imports,” then the correct question is “What is a tariff?”

    1. The name of the U.S. legislation that prohibits foreign ships from transporting cargo between two U.S. ports.
    2. The name used to describe services trade, such as language translations, provided by a foreign firm via the Internet.
    3. The name used to describe services trade, such as banking, provided by a branch office located in the foreign country.
    4. The name used to describe services trade, such as a hotel stay, provided to a foreigner traveling to the domestic country.
    5. The name used to describe services trade, such as labor expertise, provided by foreign workers working in the domestic country.
    6. The name of the Uruguay Round agreement liberalizing trade in services.
    7. The name of the Uruguay Round agreement that superseded the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA).
    8. The term used to describe the process of replacing import quotas with tariffs.
    9. The name for a trade policy that sets a low tariff on a fixed quantity of imports and a high tariff on any imports over that quota.
    10. The name of the Uruguay Round agreement on intellectual property rights.
    11. The name of the Uruguay Round agreement on agriculture.