WTO Members Aim for “Realistic” Doha Deliverables for 2013
One year after the Doha Round of trade talks was formally declared at an impasse, WTO members are beginning to show signs of re-engagement in the negotiations, according to WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy. However, he warned delegates last Friday, members must be realistic and pragmatic in the months ahead to avoid jeopardising the small Doha deliverables package that they aim to clinch by next December’s ninth ministerial conference (MC9) in Bali, Indonesia.
“MC8 left us with a long to-do list,” the Director-General told WTO members, referring to last year’s ministerial conference in Geneva, where trade ministers formally directed the global trade body’s members to explore new negotiating approaches in light of the stalemate in the talks.
However, Lamy added, members now appear to be showing “encouraging signs” that they are ready to resume their negotiations in earnest, despite 2012’s admittedly slow start.
“The activities of 2012 have contributed to building some momentum. You have put on your negotiating caps again. And we cannot afford to lose it,” he said, urging members to transform this renewed sense of engagement into concrete proposals during the first quarter of 2013. “Our credibility in the next phase will depend on our ability to make tangible progress on specific issues as they mature.”
Progress in some areas, standstill in others
Chairs of the various Doha negotiating groups also spoke at Friday’s meeting of the WTO’s Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) - which is tasked with all negotiating aspects of the Doha Round - in order to give delegates the current state of play on the different topics under negotiation.
Topics such as trade facilitation, agriculture, special and different treatment (S&DT), least developed country (LDC) issues, and dispute settlement have advanced over the past twelve months, they said, while others - such as the WTO’s negotiations on services - have barely moved at all, and are unlikely to move forward in the months ahead.
The possibility of a trade facilitation deal by end-2013 - an area of the talks that deals with easing customs procedures and other border restrictions - has gained
increased prominence over the past several months. Negotiators have been working toward finding internal balance within the subject-specific talks, as well as trying to find deliverables from other areas of the Round to go with it, in response to concerns from some members that a deal focused solely on trade facilitation would not be “self-balancing.”
On trade facilitation, negotiating group chair Eduardo Ernesto Sperisen-Yurt - who serves as Guatemala’s WTO ambassador - noted that talks in this area have shown promising developments over the past year, with members demonstrating a willingness to continue negotiating further in the year ahead.
In his oral report to the TNC, Sperisen-Yurt also stressed that members should not be alarmed by the various unresolved parts of the trade facilitation draft text.
“Those who don’t follow these negotiations closely could see themselves tempted to count the brackets that still remain in the text,” he said. “But I’d warn them that it would be an error to see that as an indicator of current progress,” he added, noting that in many cases, just one area of disagreement is the source of many of those brackets.
Notably, the topic of S&DT in the trade facilitation talks was raised by many members in their interventions, and is expected to feature prominently in upcoming negotiations.
In parallel, three proposals on agriculture - two from the G-20 coalition of developing countries, and one from the G-33 developing country group - have been debated as possible components to pair with a trade facilitation deal, earning a cautious welcome from fellow WTO members. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 November 2012)
Australia, speaking on Friday on behalf of itself and for the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters, reportedly commented that the new proposals have been a positive development, given that they have helped re-establish agriculture as a key element of the negotiations. However, sources note that Switzerland, on behalf of itself and the G-10 coalition of countries with highly-protected farm sectors, remarked that agriculture is not the only issue on the table.
Steer clear of surprises, Lamy cautions
In preparing for MC9 in Bali next year, members should “go back to our well-known principle of ‘no surprises’,” the Director-General cautioned on Friday. “Any kind of Christmas-tree syndrome as we get closer to MC9 would have destabilising effects on the entire process, jeopardise the ministerial conference itself, and dent the credibility of the WTO.”
Efforts last year at building an LDC-focused “Doha-light” package in time for the December 2011 Geneva ministerial ultimately fell apart, due to members being unable to agree on which LDC - and non-LDC - issues to include in such a deal, in what was also referred to as a “Christmas-tree” problem.
In order to achieve results in time for Bali, Lamy added, members should pursue “realistic” demands that account for other members’ so-called “red lines,” while avoiding unattainable goals or being confrontational in the negotiating process.
He also said that proponents of any new proposals should take on the responsibility themselves to build consensus among other members, and that members must avoid setting “new and unworkable deadlines.”
MC9: a Doha Round stepping stone
While a small package of Doha deliverables for next December now appears to be members’ current goal, many made clear at Friday’s meeting that the Bali event would not mark the end of the organisation’s efforts to conclude the entire Round.
“Of course, we should be under no illusion about the breadth of what we can achieve in the short timeframe between now and MC9,” Lamy said. “Nor should we create unrealistic expectations. The main stumbling blocks of the [Doha Development Agenda] are still standing and many of the toughest nuts will likely not be cracked by the time ministers meet in Bali.”
“But we should also not wait for the last minute to engage,” the trade chief warned. “One more housekeeping ministerial conference in Bali would not suffice to keep the Doha House alive.”
Various delegations who spoke on Friday echoed the Director-General’s comments, noting that Bali is just one step in a longer process. Many also cautioned that the year until Bali’s meeting is - in practice - less time for negotiating than it sounds.
“A successful MC9 appears today clearly as a necessary precondition for the conclusion, at a later stage, of the whole Round,” EU Ambassador Angelos Pangratis commented. “Progress achieved is fragile; the road ahead is long and the time to MC9 is in fact very short.”
“Bali is not a deadline, but it has already emerged as a milestone. One way or the other, Bali will mark a moment when not only we but the world outside of Geneva take stock of our work and the health of the trading system,” US Ambassador Michael Punke added.
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