As of 1 January 2002, there were 144 member nations of the WTO. There were over 30 applicants negotiating membership at that time. All GATT signatory nations who signed the Final Act of the Uruguay Round in Marrakesh in July of 1994 automatically became original members of the WTO. In addition, several other countries who joined the GATT later in 1994 and signed the Final Act of the Uruguay Round and became original WTO members. When the WTO became effective on 1 January 1995, there were 76 original WTO members and another 50 nations at various stages in the membership process.
Aside from the original WTO members, any nation or "customs territory" having full autonomy in the conduct of its trade policies may accede to the WTO on terms agreed with WTO members. The process of a nonmember nation joining the WTO takes place in several stages. In the first stage of the accession procedures the applicant government is required to provide the WTO with a memorandum covering all aspects of its trade and economic policies having a bearing on WTO agreements. This memorandum becomes the basis for a detailed examination of the accession request in a working party.
Alongside the working party's efforts, the applicant government engages in bilateral negotiations with interested member governments to establish its concessions and commitments on goods and its commitments on services. This bilateral process, among other things, determines the specific benefits for WTO members in permitting the applicant to accede. Once both the examination of the applicant's trade regime and market access negotiations are complete, the working party draws up basic terms of accession.
Finally, the results of the working party's deliberations contained in its report, a draft protocol of accession, and the agreed schedules resulting from the bilateral negotiations are presented to the General Council or the Ministerial Conference for adoption. If a two-thirds majority of WTO members vote in favor, the applicant is free to sign the protocol and to accede to the Organization; when necessary, after ratification in its national parliament or legislature.
After becoming a member, many countries are represented in the WTO by permanent diplomatic missions in Geneva usually headed by a special Ambassador.
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 due to admit 10 new members by 2004). 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.
It is important to note that any country can withdraw at any time from the WTO.