"Fireside Chats" planned at WTO to stoke the embers of the Doha negotiations

Original Publication Date: 
30 November, 2006

In the past week, several informal meetings have been taking place at the WTO which seem like a prelude to re-opening negotiations for the Doha Work Programme.

This follows the 16 November informal meeting of the WTO's Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) when a "green light" was given by Director General Pascal Lamy to re-start "technical work" on the various Doha issues.

"Fireside chats" - the new WTO language for informal and exploratory meetings involving 20 or so delegations - have been held to discuss how to start the Doha discussions again in agriculture and services.

At least three more "fireside chats" - this time involving substantive issues - are being planned for agriculture before the end of the year. They are expected to keep the embers of the Doha agenda alive, but few expect these to turn to fire anytime soon.

At the 16 November meeting, Lamy had said it is the respective Chairs (of the various negotiating groups), in consultation with delegations, who are best placed to determine the way ahead in each area and the speed with which the work should take place.

That meeting signalled a "soft resumption" of the Doha talks: in the new WTO parlance, "somewhere between quiet diplomacy and full-fledged negotiations".

The re-ignition trigger however was not the TNC meeting but a meeting of some 20 Ambassadors convened on 9 November by New Zealand Ambassador, Crawford Falconer, at his Mission. That meeting discussed how to get the talks moving again.

The next day Falconer, who is also Chair of the agriculture negotiations, convened (in his personal capacity) an informal meeting of all WTO members, at which several members indicated that they wanted discussions to re-start. Brazil, on behalf of the G20, spoke of the need for technical work to resume.

Several trade diplomats in Geneva have privately commented that it appeared to them that Falconer, and perhaps the Chairs of other groups as well, were dissatisfied with the long period of total inaction at the WTO since the Doha talks were suspended across the board at the end of July at the suggestion of Lamy.

The Chairs, supported by some delegations, wanted talks to resume, as there were many technical issues that could be discussed, even if the big political issues (such as numbers to be put on cuts to agricultural domestic support and tariffs or to coefficients in the NAMA tariff-reduction formula) could not yet be resolved.

The Crawford meetings of 9 and 10 November were followed by a Lamy-convened Green Room meeting for about 20 Ambassadors also on 10 November, which in turn led to the 16 November informal TNC during which the go-ahead was given for Chairs to consult members and to re-start technical meetings.

According to this interpretation of an apparent wrestling between Crawford (and possibly other Chairs) and Lamy on how the talks should resume, Lamy had felt that resumption should take place when Ministers of the Group of 6 felt ready to meet again, under his leadership or stewardship.

The former camp felt however that time was being wasted, that the entire WTO membership should not be kept waiting, and that useful discussions could resume, at least on "technical issues".

With Crawford going ahead on his own and taking his own series of actions, it would appear that Lamy had little choice but to give a green light for the Chairs and members to plan how to resume the "technical discussions".

Given that the line between "technical" and "political" is not clear, there is license enough for the Geneva-level talks to move ahead.

Whether there is enough steam to bring about movement is still the big question. Most analysts and many Geneva diplomats believe that the political situation in the US is still cloudy, and that the balance has tilted against the Administration's ability to make new WTO offers, given that the new Democrat-controlled Congress would at the least be less inclined to provide Bush and his US Trade Representative the flexibility to act as they like.

Until the US situation clears up, and until there is a signal that the US is able to give a better offer to reduce its allowed level of agricultural domestic support, the other major players are not likely to make any move themselves to improve their own offers.

Despite this lack of real movement, and little prospect of this in the near future, there has been a significant increase in activity at the WTO following the TNC informal.

On 21 November, Crawford held another meeting, at the New Zealand Mission, on agriculture, attended by 20 to 25 Ambassadors.

According to a diplomat, the meeting covered mainly process issues, on how to get the agriculture talks going. It was concluded that Falconer should convene another three meetings of this small group of 20-25 delegations, this time to discuss substantive issues before the end of December.

These meetings were given the term "fireside chats", presumably to describe both the cosy atmosphere of informal discussion of a small group, and the approach of winter in Geneva.

At the 21 November meeting, the US proposed that the fireside chats deal with certain issues, mentioning the need for members to identify which products could be included in the categories of special products and sensitive products.

However, other members including the EU, India, China and Indonesia rejected this approach, suggesting instead that the issues should be discussed in general first before going into details.

The first of the three fireside chats will be on 29 November, and the subject will be domestic support.

Besides these fireside chats of a small group, there will also be an informal open-ended meeting before the end of the year to keep all delegations informed.

Crawford will also hold "confessionals"- the WTO term for individual delegations or groupings to "confess" to the Chair what their real feelings are about flexibilities, bottom lines and about the position of others.

This three-track approach in agriculture will get activity going again. However, many diplomats are pessimistic about whether there will be real progress.

In other areas of negotiations, the Chair of the negotiating group on non-agriculture market access (NAMA), Ambassador Don Stephenson of Canada, has also been holding "confessionals" with various delegations and groupings.

WTO diplomats expect him to convene an informal meeting for all delegations in the next week or two to inform them of his perceptions and to allow the airing of views. This will be a prelude to more substantive negotiations, perhaps in the fireside mode as well.

On services, several informal meetings have also taken place in the past fortnight. A meeting of the "Friends of Services" (delegations with an active interest in services), led by the US and the EU, discussed how to reactivate the GATS negotiations, as part of the overall "soft resumption" of the Doha talks.

A "fireside dinner" was also organised by the Chair of the services negotiations, Ambassador Fernando de Mateo of Mexico, for selected delegations, following the example of Crawford. And several bilateral meetings have been taking place, for example, between the European Commission and several countries.

So far the services meetings have focused on process, but future meetings are planned that will go into substance, both on market access and on domestic regulation. Some delegations are keen to fix new deadlines for revised and possibly final offers, since the deadlines set by the Hong Kong Ministerial have passed.

According to diplomatic sources, a second services "fireside chat" is expected on 27 November, while a special session of the Services Council could be organized around 29 November to discuss organisational matters and a meeting on domestic regulation could be held at the beginning of December.

The sources say that the EC is interested to build up a momentum in services in parallel with expected momentum returning in agriculture and NAMA.

However, a trade analyst pointed out that this kind of "parallelism" had been lost in the intense weeks before the July suspension, when the focus had almost exclusively been on agriculture and NAMA.

It is thus hard to envisage how services market-access negotiations could make a big comeback, until there is a breakthrough first in the agriculture talks.

In any case, the plurilateral talks around certain service sectors had not produced any significant results even before the July suspension, and there is little likelihood of their taking place again until full-fledged negotiations in agriculture resume.