An unofficial 2 November deadline for finalising the agenda of the WTO’s December ministerial conference has caused quiet consultations on agricultural export restrictions to pick up the pace, trade sources say.
A number of countries are interested in asking the WTO membership as a whole to exempt humanitarian food aid purchases made by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) from agricultural export restrictions – the commitment made by agriculture ministers from the Group of 20 major economies at their Paris summit in June (see Bridges Weekly, 29 June 2011).
However, the process is complicated by differences of opinion and approach within the WTO membership as a whole, and also within the G-20 (not to be confused with the coalition of developing countries at the WTO with the same name).
In April of this year, the group of net food-importing developing countries (NFIDCs) tabled a more wide-reaching proposal on agricultural export restrictions as part of the Doha Round of trade talks at the WTO: this would effectively have exempted NFIDCs and least-developed countries from export prohibitions or restrictions imposed by other countries (see Bridges Weekly, 6 April 2011).
Sources told Bridges that the group may still wish to see a more ambitious statement made by trade ministers when they meet in December.
In contrast, other WTO members are believed to be reluctant to agree to language based on the G-20 agriculture ministers’ statement from June – including some developing country members of the G-20 itself. Countries such as Argentina and India have made use of such export restriction measures in recent years, while others, such as China, may be concerned about possible implications for other WTO issues, such as export restrictions on non-agricultural products (see Bridges Weekly, 7 September 2011).
The action plan from the G-20’s June summit stated that the signatories “agree to remove food export restrictions or extraordinary taxes for food purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by WFP and agree not to impose them in the future.” The plan also stated that its sponsors would recommend “consideration of the adoption of a specific resolution by the WTO for the Ministerial Conference in 2011.”
Delegates indicated that informal consultations were taking place to explore whether countries may be willing to adopt language based on the G-20’s agreement at December’s trade ministers gathering. An informal pre-existing ‘gentleman’s agreement’ specifying that agendas for ministerial gatherings should be finalised six weeks ahead of time adds new urgency to the discussions, sources said.
Rule-making: some members query approach
ome Geneva-based officials told Bridges that, while the G-20 statement itself was not problematic, they were uncomfortable with the precedent that a ministerial declaration on the subject could set for future rule-making at the global trade body.
“If it is adopted by trade ministers, it would become part of the trade rules that every country has to abide by,” one delegate observed. “People ask, ‘is that the right way to make rules?’”
Many developing country governments are still keen to conclude the stalled Doha Round of trade talks, the source said, and therefore are wary of anything that could distract from that goal. While the G-20 declaration was valuable as a political statement, members should avoid assuming that this means it would also serve as a useful legal basis for commitments at the WTO, the source added.
Scepticism amongst importing countries
However, another developing country official from an importing country told Bridges that these arguments had yet to convince him. “A declaration could still guide a panel,” the source said, arguing that the proposed measure could help poor countries in the event of a food shortage.
Others questioned how countries could perceive the G-20 agreement as problematic in practical terms, given its narrow focus on humanitarian food aid. “Only the poorest countries benefit from WFP aid,” one delegate observed, pointing out that these countries largely lack the financial resources to pursue trade disputes at the WTO.
In any case, because food aid is provided for emergency situations, the notoriously slow dispute settlement process would be particularly ill-adapted to resolving any problems countries might face, the source said.
One delegate from a least-developed country underscored the importance of introducing effective disciplines on export restrictions. “This is important for us,” the official observed, who added that the poorest countries “are the worst sufferers from any export ban.”
Committee on Agriculture: informal proposal
In a separate move, Japan circulated an unofficial ‘room document’ on agricultural export restrictions at last week’s meeting of the Committee on Agriculture (see related story in this issue).
The informal paper proposed clarifying terms such as ‘net-food exporter’ and ‘foodstuffs’ that feature in existing disciplines on agricultural export restrictions in the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.
However, some participants at the meeting argued that the committee had no mandate to agree on the interpretation of legal terms, which they said was under the purview of the dispute settlement process. In comments after the event, other delegates said that the committee could still be a useful forum in which members could share and exchange their understanding of what existing commitments were intended to mean.
December ministerial conference deadline looms
Trade officials speculated that agricultural export restrictions could be one of a number of issues currently under consideration for the WTO’s December ministerial conference. Others might include the accession of Russia to the WTO; a possible extension of the moratorium on ‘non-violation complaints’ regarding the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS); and a similar extension to the moratorium on e-commerce customs duties.
Delegates said that WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy “would still run the process to get convergence on Doha,” although members have already acknowledged that the round will not be concluded this year, amidst growing scepticism over its prospects for the future.
A work programme for the WTO for next year should also “be part of what Lamy’s cooking at the moment,” the official said. The Director-General is reportedly currently consulting with ambassadors ahead of the next meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee, which the source said is scheduled for 21 October. “By then, things should become much clearer,” the source added.