With the shadow of Doha and the ongoing financial crisis hovering in the background, representatives from civil society, academia, business, government, and the media flocked to the WTO’s Geneva headquarters this week for a series of over forty sessions centred on the future of the multilateral trading system. Talks at the 19-21 September meetings were organised around this year’s Public Forum theme, “seeking answers to global trade challenges.”
The events, which drew 1500 registered participants, were divided into four sub-themes: food security, made-in-the-world and value added trade, trade in natural resources, and the future of the multilateral trading system. The various panels covered a broad spectrum of issues, ranging from access to medicines to the implications of the Arab Spring on the trade world to lessons learned from preferential trading agreements.
“A world in need of a compass”
The struggles facing the Doha Round of trade talks – and the potential implications of the current impasse for the WTO as a whole – were not lost on either the audience or the panellists, especially in light of the uncertainty caused by the global financial crisis. Nonetheless, participants largely remained upbeat and focused on a multiplicity of issues facing the WTO and the system more broadly.
At the high-level plenary kicking off the three-day event, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla emphasised to listeners that “in the midst of this crisis of confidence which has affected financial institutions, the WTO is a strong pillar of international legal certainty.” However, she acknowledged that the slow pace of the talks were “weakening trust in the system.”
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, in a one-on-one interview at the forum with Zeinab Badawi, presenter of the BBC’s World News Today, rebuffed notions that the Doha Round was dead. “It’s not an animal. International negotiations are in a category where the notion of life and death is a bit different, which is why the analogy with a living organism may be misleading.”
Questions also surfaced about whether the WTO membership would indeed move toward pursuing standalone agreements from the Doha negotiating agenda. Responding to this speculation, Lamy clarified that this avenue was one that members “are exploring to see whether we can exit this situation.” He added that the scope of Doha was not the problem, as some suggested; rather, it is “putting that many topics into one single negotiating bag.”
Lamy also addressed some of the concerns about the growing proliferation of preferential trade agreements, and whether these could cause harm to the multilateral trading system. “I don’t think we can afford a fragmentation of world trade through bilateral regulatory approaches,” he told Badawi, alluding to the fear that “deeper” preferential trading agreements – those that go beyond border measures – could create a “spaghetti bowl” effect of overlapping regulatory regimes.
Preferential trade agreements, which were the subject of this year’s World Trade Report (see Bridges Weekly, 28 July 2011) featured in various panels throughout the three-day gathering, whether with regards to intellectual property rights provisions, regulatory coherence, or stumbling blocks for a proposed trans-Pacific agreement (for more on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see our related article in this issue).
Food security issues draw particular attention
Against a backdrop of an ailing global economy, a deadlocked Doha trade deal, and high and volatile global food prices, the relationship between farm trade and food security was a recurring theme at this year’s Public Forum. Agricultural export restrictions, biofuel policies, and the long-term outlook for supply and demand dominated the food security discussions – irrespective of whether the sessions were organised by farm industry groups, civil society organisations, or by the WTO secretariat itself.
With Doha talks on farm subsidy disciplines and market access seemingly stalled, and with no immediate resolution in sight, speakers dissected trade challenges facing policymakers in the longer-term – often making reference to more active international political processes such as discussions among the Group of 20 leading economies, or in domestic farm policy debates in the US and EU.
The growing problem of food security also drew an impassioned request from Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who asked for help from NGOs and the WTO Aid for Trade initiative in combating the effects of the food crisis. Issoufou told the audience that “increased [food] prices have caused riots in our countries.”
“Made in the world” trade on the rise
“Made in the world is the world today,” Lamy told the audience at the inaugural session, underscoring the growth in global value chains in recent years. The implications of this shift featured in a variety of sessions, touching on issues such as rules of origin, the impact of the growing proliferation of bilateral agreements, and even the connection of global value chains with climate change.
“The reason why we still have ‘made-in’ [labels] has to do with bilateral preferential agreements,” Lamy added, noting that these agreements have less influence in a world of globalised production.
Speakers at a Monday panel organised by the WTO’s Economic Research and Statistics Division urged that a more co-operative approach to this change in the structure of international trade might be needed, given its implications for the development of both developed and developed countries.
A better understanding of how each stage of the production process contributes to carbon flows would also be essential, some panellists argued at a climate change-focused session on Tuesday, suggesting that this could be achieved once trade regulation takes “value added” at each production stage more into account. Underlining this point, Peter Allgeier, former US Ambassador to the WTO, declared “traditional yardsticks of evaluating trade liberalisation no longer work,” noting that nearly one third of US trade was intra-company.
Climate change, intellectual property rights
Various discussions at the forum also touched on the need to move past market access concerns in order to counter the adverse effects of climate change. Speakers presented a series of initiatives on natural resources and sustainable energy that could inform upcoming discussion in Durban, South Africa, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the upcoming year.
Panellists also emphasised the need for improved international co-operation in climate technology development, investment, and diffusion.
Intellectual property rights also surfaced in several of the event discussions, particularly with regards to innovation and access to medicines, along with creating debate on whether stronger intellectual property rights were related to increased or decreased growth in high and low income countries.