Five months on from the eighth WTO ministerial conference, members are still looking at options for moving out of the Doha Round impasse, with the contentious issues of industrial market access and agriculture having seen little progress during recent negotiations in Geneva.
“Clearly, the situation has not evolved much since my last report,” WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told members at a 1 May meeting of the General Council, the WTO’s highest decision-making body outside the ministerial conference.
“But at the same time, my conversations over the past few weeks with ministers and delegations have provided me with a sense that members wish to continue to explore any opportunities to gain the necessary traction and make tangible progress soon.”
Ministers at December’s ministerial had declared the Doha Round of trade talks – now in their eleventh year – at an impasse, with members encouraged to explore different negotiating approaches and advance the trade talks in areas “where progress can be achieved.” (See Bridges Weekly, 14 December 2011)
Tuesday’s General Council meeting – the second since the December ministerial – focused little on agriculture and industrial market access, the two areas that have generated the most contention in the round, sources confirmed to Bridges, an omission that Australia highlighted in its comments to the group.
There needs to be “some level of engagement” among the membership to find ways to address these issues in the future, Australia said.
To that end, several ambassadors are gathering this week in Corfu, Greece, together with the Director-General, in an EU-hosted meeting to examine the current state of play and what, if anything, can be done to move the negotiations forward, sources confirmed to Bridges after the General Council meeting.
The meeting in Corfu includes various “key players of the Round,” one developing country official familiar with the discussions said, and could provide a “relatively fair indication of whether progress can be made
“I would say that this meeting now taking place is probably going to be the first serious attempt to come up with something after the ministerial meeting in December,” the official added.
Progress in trade facilitation?
One area of the negotiations that has the potential to soon see progress is trade facilitation, Lamy told delegates on Tuesday, noting that discussions with ministers from the Group of 20 major economies in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta last month showed a “collective acknowledgement of [trade facilitation’s] win-win potential for all members,” so long as technical assistance and capacity-building for developing countries and in particular least developed countries (LDCs) is provided.
“It’s heartening that, in Puerto Vallarta, there was practically a convergence of opinion that [WTO] members might be able to achieve a result in this area,” one delegate familiar with the G-20 discussions commented.
While several delegations at the General Council spoke in favour of moving the trade facilitation discussions forward, India stressed that – while the issue is important – the subject should not be divorced from the “overall context of the delicate balance of trade-offs negotiated during the Doha Round,” in order that issues of interest to developing countries be “given equal priority and concluded simultaneously.”
The issue “cannot be viewed in isolation,” India added.
However, sources commented, some developing countries in their interventions expressed support for moving the trade facilitation talks forward without linking or making them conditional with progress in other negotiating areas.
Instead, some developing country members argued that the linkages should instead be within the trade facilitation talks themselves, in terms of matching resources with commitments. Similar concerns were also raised by some developed country members, with the EU stressing that any agreement in this field should include technical assistance and capacity-building procedures.
“In any case, [trade facilitation and dispute settlement] are subjects where a majority of the membership does have an interest,” one developing country official commented.
After the meeting, however, some members expressed scepticism in comments to Bridges over whether moving trade facilitation forward in the near future would indeed be feasible.
Protectionism, global value chains
The gathering comes amid concerns of rising protectionism among some members, particularly in light of new trade statistics by the global trade body showing that trade growth is likely to continue slowing in 2012.
“So far, although protectionist pressures have been reasonably contained, recent worrying slippages in the form of trade restrictive measures have been registered,” Lamy told members.
Protectionism fears and global value chains were also high on the agenda last month when G-20 trade ministers met in Puerto Vallarta.
“There was a shared sense that global value chains today require a new trade narrative, where imports matter as much as exports; where both imports and exports contribute to job creation and to growth,” the Director-General said, adding that this is not a “new issues versus old issues” situation.
The creation of a multi-stakeholder panel by the Director-General to assess current and future trade challenges – an initiative first announced at the December ministerial, and elaborated on in recent weeks – sparked a cautious response by some delegations at Tuesday’s meeting.
A number of members – including Brazil, India, and South Africa – stressed in their interventions that, while they welcomed the formation of the panel, the future of the WTO and any rules or obligations emanating in that direction must remain within the purview of members. Any of the conclusions of this panel are not necessarily those of the WTO membership, they added, and are conducted under Lamy’s own responsibility.
“Whatever comes from WTO must be agreed by all members, it’s a member-driven organisation,” one emerging economy official commented.
India, for its part, also criticised the process used in creating the panel, arguing that members were not involved in its composition and that the panel lacks sufficient representation from small and medium enterprises, experts in the field of trade and development, or civil society.