GENEVA, June 7 Laos has cleared the last major hurdle in its 15-year quest for membership of the World Trade Organization and could finalise entry terms by the end of the year, according to internal documents seen by Reuters on Thursday.
Laos is on the home straight to membership after reaching agreement with Ukraine, the last WTO member to consent. Under WTO rules, every existing member has the right to demand improved terms of trade from candidate countries before letting them into the global trading club.
Ukraine is still holding out on terms for Yemen, causing concern among other members who have asked for an update when the WTO gathers for its General Council meeting in July.
Their difficulties with Ukraine prompted Laos and Yemen to call for help earlier this year, triggering an unprecedented process in which senior diplomats intervened in the bilateral negotiations to try to smooth the way.
Yemen and Laos are both designated "least developed countries" (LDCs) by the WTO, which means existing members are expected to give them a relatively easy ride and not to ask them to lower their trade barriers.
Laos applied to to join the WTO in July 1997 while Yemen applied just over 12 years ago.
Ukraine's hardball demands had mystified trade diplomats at the WTO, some of whom said Ukraine was becoming the new "bad boy" of the global trading club.
Laos signed an "in principle" agreement after talks in Kiev, according to a note welcoming the development, which was sent to the General Council by six WTO members and eight country groups, including the European Union and the United States.
China's ambassador to the WTO, Yi Xiaozhun, who is chairing the WTO working party on Laos, said earlier this year that the process was at the "end-game stage".
He said the working party could sign off on Laos' membership terms in September or October, after which they would just need formal adoption by a plenary meeting of the WTO and ratification by Laos itself. (Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Tim Pearce)