After months of intense negotiations, WTO members have formally agreed on draft decisions and elements of political guidance to forward to trade ministers when they arrive in Geneva next week. However, two widely-discussed food security proposals failed to make the cut, despite a general agreement among members on the need for a food security agenda.
The items agreed upon at last week’s 30 November meeting of the WTO General Council will form the first part of the chair’s statement at the ministerial conference, with the second part – a summary of the issues that ministers raise at the event – to be determined at the event itself.
For more details on the draft decisions and elements of political guidance, see last week’s lead story in Bridges.
The food security proposals, one led by the EU and the other by Egypt, varied in scope but aimed to address export restrictions that have been faulted for driving up the price of food. Record food prices this year and in the past have been blamed for increasing hunger in developing countries.
While the food security proposals were some of the more talked-about ideas not to make the cut, sources note that various other proposals tabled in the consultations leading up to the 30 November General Council meeting also failed to make it into the political guidance document.
In many cases, trade sources explained, this was either due to the lack of time for discussing the proposals thoroughly, or because the issues under consideration were not well enough understood.
Although there might be an appetite for a food security agenda at the global trade body, “it seems that people have become quite firm. They’re committed to the political guidance document and don’t want to open it up for discussion” one source said.
Proposals different, yet similarly excluded
Building on a series of political decisions by the Group of 20 leading economies – not to be confused by the developing country grouping of the same name at the WTO – the EU formally proposed this past Wednesday that WTO members also agree not to restrict access to World Food Programme (WFP) purchases.
However, the EU’s proposal – which had 14 co-sponsors, including some G-20 members – failed to find consensus among the broader membership.
Some countries that were unconvinced by the EU proposal said that bringing G-20 language into the WTO would “open the door” for other issues discussed in the G-20 context to be brought into the global trade body.
Similar concerns had also been raised about the language that was eventually included in the political guidance document regarding protectionism. In consultations leading up to the General Council meeting, some countries had questioned whether transposing language used at a political forum like the G-20 to the WTO might set a bad precedent, given the legally binding nature of WTO commitments.
However, one delegate that supported the EU proposal rebuffed these concerns, stating that “we know that the G-20 is not a directorate or steering board for the WTO.”
Those co-ordinating the EU proposal had reportedly been discouraged from submitting the paragraph to a formal process within the Committee on Agriculture, given the apprehension that some members have toward new legal commitments, real or perceived.
Considering that last Wednesday’s meeting of the General Council was the first formal opportunity for comment on the EU proposal, some criticised the EU for imposing language without an opportunity to modify it.
Meanwhile, Egypt – working with the African, Arab and Net Food Importing Developing Countries (NFIDC) Groups – had tabled its own proposal for addressing food price volatility in Least Developed Countries and NFIDCs. This latter proposal included limits on export restrictions and increases in trade finance.
The proposal grew out of a text tabled earlier this year by Egypt and NFIDCs as part of the Doha Round negotiations. This earlier iteration carved out a specific exemption for NFIDCs and LDCs from export bans.
The most recent version of the proposal, circulated on 25 November in its final form, called for a work programme under the aegis of the General Council to discuss this issue and others, such as trade finance, that contribute to price volatility and food insecurity.
Geneva-based trade officials indicated that, while no single member explicitly blocked the inclusion of either proposal in the final document on political guidance, doubts raised by some members made consensus difficult to achieve.
The days ahead
Those close to both proposals indicated a willingness to press their case at the Ministerial Conference next week; others suggested broad support for a food security agenda at the WTO.
Barring inclusion in the consensus half of the chair’s statement, ministers may still express their support for either proposal or a food security agenda in their independent statements next week. This would allow for their positions to be written up in the second half of the chair’s statement.
Even if WTO members could agree on a food security agenda, a delegate added that it was “difficult to imagine that we could have progress on food security without having progress on the Doha Development Agenda.”
The ten-year Doha negotiations have faced repeated difficulties in recent years, with the political guidance document on 30 November officially acknowledging the impasse in the trade talks.
In the absence of ongoing negotiations, delegates at the WTO have been occupied with templates for scheduling commitments and notifications of domestic support, among other routine tasks. The WTO may need to “survive on procedural activities” according to one official. “It’s not all sad,” he added.