Bridges Weekly Trade News DigestVolume 14Number 7 • 24th February 2010

March Too Early to Bring Ministers to Geneva: Lamy

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A late March ‘stocktaking’ meeting to assess progress in the Doha Round of world trade talks will not involve trade ministers, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told a meeting of the organisation’s General Council on Monday.

“I believe that this exercise is best undertaken by senior officials at this stage,” Lamy said.

The announcement had been widely expected among followers of the global trade talks. Despite numerous calls from heads of state for the eight-year-old negotiations to be put to bed before the end of this year, members’ positions have barely budged. To meet the end-of-year goal, officials will have to secure a major breakthrough - an agreement on ‘modalities’ deals for the formulas and figures governing members’ tariff and subsidy cuts - before the end of the first quarter. That objective now seems almost out of the question.

As always, however, Lamy remained optimistic. “I believe the stocktaking provides an important opportunity to inject the political energy and momentum in the negotiations so that we can hopefully chart the path for cracking the remaining nuts,” he told the assembled delegates.

“At the stocktaking we would therefore have a better sense of where the gaps remain, the size of these gaps, as well as the dynamic to address them,” he said. “This would enable you to report to your ministers and decide after further consultations on how best to address the next steps post-stocktaking, which will need political guidance.”

Lamy did not dismiss the 2010 deadline out of hand, noting instead that the question of whether the end-of-year goal remains feasible “is a judgement that belongs to ministers.” To that end, he said, “engagement will be needed,” but he added that March is “too early” to bring together the necessary top-level officials.

The Director-General noted that he would likely convene senior officials for the stocktaking exercise on 29 and 30 March, although those dates have not been confirmed.

Responding to Lamy’s remarks in front of the assembled delegates, trade officials expressed their weariness and frustration with the continued lack of movement in the round. Several delegations complained that their efforts at progress had been hamstrung by senior officials in their home capitals who had not allowed them enough negotiating leeway to finish the job.

“The scepticism was pretty clear and straightforward,” said one trade official who attended the meeting. Several delegates had said that they will need stronger political guidance from higher-ranking officials if a deal is to be struck, the source added.

Addressing the General Council after Lamy’s remarks, Mexican ambassador Fernando de Mateo laid out three potential scenarios for the future of the Doha Round: the talks could muddle on for 2010, slowly becoming even more irrelevant; the negotiations could be suspended, although de Mateo warned that such a scenario would risk allowing the gaps in the talks to widen even further; or, as most delegates hope, the political will could be summoned to close the deal.

At this point, few people are talking seriously about suspending the talks, according to a source close to the negotiations. It is more likely that officials will continue to negotiate, spurred on by particularly enthusiastic WTO members such as Australia and the European Union. Lamy certainly intends to continue forging ahead.

“At a time when many members in this organisation are getting frustrated at the time it takes to realise the gains of this round for them, the negotiating chairs and I can and will chart a path for your engagement,” he told delegates. “But however good this path is, you yourselves have to walk it by engaging in negotiations with each other…2010 cannot be a wasted year.”

The Doha Round is already the longest-running round of global trade talks in history. The Uruguay Round - which immediately preceded the Doha talks - previously held the record, having lasted a total of seven years and seven months. But each round of world trade talks has lasted longer than the one before it, and many observers say that this one is still worth fighting for.

In a column for Vox EU, Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott and Woan Foong Wong of the Peterson Institute for International Economics argue that sealing a global trade deal would be critical to staving off protectionist pressures and easing crisis-related unemployment. They predict that a Doha deal would boost global GDP by more than US$ 280 billion each year.

“The death of Doha would likely propel a new wave of preferential trade pacts and severely fracture the multilateral trading system,” they wrote. “The Doha Round can and should be concluded.”

More information

The full text of Lamy’s remarks to the General Council is available here:

ICTSD reporting.

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