As tariffs have decreased, non-tariff barriers (NTBs) have attracted increasing attention, as they are as distorting trade as flat-rate tariffs. Non-tariff barriers consist of a series of rules, standards, standards, technical issues, administrative and bureaucratic procedures and other market-related barriers faced by exporters while trying to access a given market. The WTO is trying to highlight this area through a policy of transparency and information, but also by restrictions on the use of non-tariff barriers. For the most part, GATT, as developed after 1947 and which became permanent within the World Trade Organization in 1994, represents three key elements that contribute to the monitoring of world trade and to the way in which national governments allow each other to intervene in this trade. The first is a set of mutually agreed limits (or rules) for the application of restrictive measures by national governments. These were originally defined in the general agreement itself, but were interpreted and developed both later in the negotiations and through the GATT dispute resolution process. The second is progressive liberalization, which must be achieved through negotiations on trade barriers and the removal of trade barriers. These rounds of negotiations, which ended on the basis of reciprocal concessions between member state governments, took place in the 1960s and 1970s (in the Kennedys and Tokyo Round) and in the 1980s until 1994 (in the Uruguay round). The GATT was created to create rules to end or limit the most costly and undesirable features of the pre-war period, namely quantitative barriers to trade such as trade controls and quotas. The agreement also provided for a system for resolving trade disputes between nations and the framework allowed for a series of multilateral negotiations on the removal of customs barriers. The GATT was considered a major success in the post-war years.
As I have already said, the theoretical basic principles of the GATT, as formulated on paper, are not strictly respected in practice. Because of the many exceptions and limitations and a broad interpretation of their implementation, it has become a habit to refer to the “GATT grey area”. In particular, the principle of MFN now focuses on about 50% of world trade. This is not only a consequence of the exception areas specifically mentioned in the GATT, but also of various non-tariff barriers that have been put into practice within and outside its regulatory conditions. In view of this recent development, one must ask whether it can still be described as “unconditional” or whether it becomes a privilege that is granted only to certain countries under certain conditions, which, in one way or another, escapes the whole ambitious approach of the global reintegration of the international community. It remains to be seen to what extent the GATT will be undermined in the future. This principle is called treatment of the most favoured nation (MFN) (see box). It is so important that this is the first article of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that governs trade in goods. The MFN is also a priority of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) (Article 2) and the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) (Article 4), although the principle is treated somewhat differently in each agreement.