A "soft resumption" of the WTO Doha talks?

Original Publication Date: 
20 November, 2006

Trade negotiators at the World Trade Organization appear to be all set for what is described as 'a soft resumption' of the Doha talks, whose suspension was announced in July last by the WTO head and TNC chair, Mr. Pascal Lamy.

Lamy had announced his decision to suspend when a crucial meeting of the G-6 trade ministers, following the St. Petersburg G-8 summit, had failed to bridge the gap on agriculture issues. He then recommended the suspension to the TNC and got it okayed by the TNC. Since then he has been under pressure from several chairs of the negotiating committees for resuming work, at least at the technical level.

After an informal heads-of-delegation-level meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee on Thursday morning, several trade diplomats said that a process somewhere between quiet diplomacy and full-fledged negotiations - a 'soft' resumption of the talks - is now set to begin, with all negotiating groups holding meetings, mainly focussing on technical work, and with the respective Chairs deciding when to hold these meetings.

A majority of the developing country delegations, speaking at the informal, insisted that this is a Development Round and the integrity of the Doha mandate in all its aspects must be maintained.

Earlier, speaking at the informal TNC meet Thursday, Lamy who had gone to Hanoi for the APEC summit and held talks there with the trade ministers of APEC, underlined that it is the respective Chairs, 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.

''Today, we are somewhere between the quiet diplomacy of the last months and the fully-fledged negotiations which will only come when members are ready to put numbers to the flexibilities they have already expressed in general terms on key issues, in particular on agriculture market access and domestic support,'' he said.

While members are ready to start technical work at the level of experts, it would be in his view, premature to move on to ministerial negotiations, Lamy said, adding that what he is suggesting to members is to prepare the ground for fully-fledged negotiations to take place when the conditions are right.

''While we intensify the work in the negotiating groups in Geneva, I believe it is crucial that bilateral contacts among members continue to test numbers and explore flexibilities. It is an essential component to prepare the terrain for a deal,'' Lamy said.

According to trade diplomats who were present at the informal meeting, the process is somewhere between quiet diplomacy and full-fledged negotiations - a 'soft' resumption of the talks. All the negotiating groups will be holding meetings which would mainly focus on technical work. It would also be up to the Chairs to decide when to hold these meetings.

According to the trade diplomats, developing country members reiterated at the TNC, that this is a development round and that the integrity of the Doha mandate must be respected.

The developing countries said that the parallel processes of consultations organized by the respective Chairs and that of 'quiet diplomacy' should not limit the effective participation of small delegations. Many developing countries also warned against fixing new deadlines, as many deadlines have been missed in the past.

In his remarks at the informal meeting, Lamy said that he has continued with his contacts at every level since the General Council meeting last month in order to try to facilitate the restart of the negotiations. He pointed to the meetings of the G20, the Cairns Group and the World Bank-IMF.

He also said that he had just returned from the APEC Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, Viet Nam where political and business leaders underlined that failure to conclude the Doha Development Agenda would be a very negative development for both the regional and world economies. In his contacts with the ministers in Hanoi, he said that he had detected a general sense of urgency.

Lamy stressed that members must not forget that ''our window of opportunity is limited. There must be significant progress by the early spring if we are to have a chance of finishing the Round next year.''

Today, he said, there seems to be widespread support for multilateralizing these contacts and bringing them back to the negotiating groups. There is also a view that this should be done across the spectrum of the different areas on the agenda.

In practice, this means increasing the number of contacts in the various negotiating areas and broadening them in the interests of transparency and inclusiveness. It means increasing the opportunities for participants to start again to test each others' positions and to explore possible options to take the negotiations ahead. The Negotiating Group Chairs are ready to play a key role in this, Lamy said.

According to trade officials, what was being talked about is not a substantive breakthrough or something that means that the round is back in full-fledged negotiations. The negotiations have shifted to a different mode in terms of the process. The Negotiating Chairs will now have the freedom and flexibility to decide on the format, the timing and scope of the negotiations pertaining to their specific areas. This will happen across-the-board.

The trade officials said that members at the meeting had embraced the need to shift to a higher gear, and that the work needs to be done across-the-board. There is also a need to give the Chairs the necessary flexibility to conduct the negotiations in a way that they see fit, and see as best suited to what members tell them.

According to the trade officials, it will require a significant political decision among the key players to jump-start the talks. Those decisions will take place in capitals but the process cannot move along and be completed without a Geneva element. There is need to get the machinery functioning so that technical work can be done and the process is in play.

Trade officials said: "We have certainly moved beyond the state of suspension into a different stage of the process, and it will be up to the Chairs to decide how they proceed. The Geneva process has moved to a more active stage but the breakthrough required will still hinge on political decisions in capitals."

A number of countries spoke at the informal TNC meeting.

India agreed with Lamy that the time has now come to resume deliberations on the Doha Development Agenda to test whether the period of reflection has led members to more creative solutions to the impasse in July.

It said that the resumption can only be successful in leading to an outcome if it is unconditionally faithful to the development mandate of the Doha Round. For this, there is need to discuss all aspects of the mandate and not confine ourselves to issues which some consider as the big ticket issues.

India welcomed Lamy's statement about the need to resume work on all aspects of the mandate and supported his idea that the resumption should be based on the initiatives and wisdom of the Chairs.

For India, the key issues which constitute the core of the mandate are two-fold: "Firstly, how can we address the inequities of the past and the distortions of the past and present in a meaningful manner, fully consistent with the requirements of the mandate. Secondly, how can we provide the necessary space in the various negotiations to developing countries to enable them to pursue their development strategies as mandated by their people."

In the negotiations, there is need to find a balance between the political and technical dimensions, India said, adding that a major requirement of serious negotiations is that "we focus on substance..." The issue of agricultural subsidies for instance is as much about tight disciplines as it is about numbers of trade distorting support.

"The challenge before us is to fit the narrow window of opportunity and the need to conclude our deliberations by the end of next year, with the process of broad-based and inclusive negotiations that have their own logic and sequencing.

''For this, we cannot allow ourselves to be prisoners of rigid timelines,'' India said.

Bangladesh on behalf of the LDCs said that the focus must be on agriculture, especially on domestic support and market access. Cotton was also important. They agreed with what the Director-General had said. Bangladesh also said that transparency and inclusiveness was important. It warned against a 'false start', saying that this will destroy the credibility of the multilateral trading system. The issue of quota-free and duty-free market access was critical to the LDCs in the negotiations.

Benin on behalf of the African Group said that it was essential that negotiating work resume as soon as possible. What the Director-General had said was very encouraging and useful. The consequences of an impasse would be a disaster for the poorest and most vulnerable countries. There is need for a prompt and effective resumption of the negotiations, Benin said.

Japan said that there should be no more delays. It supported the Director-General and said that there is need to intensify and multilateralize the negotiations, and that the negotiations should be across the board. There is also a need to trust in the leadership of the Chairs of the negotiating groups.

Mauritius speaking on behalf of the ACP Group welcomed the decision, saying that the negotiations are very important for the Group. While the process has been multilateralized, Lamy should also be encouraged to continue high-level contacts. The basis for the restart of the negotiations should be the 2004 July Framework Agreement, the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration and the Chairs' texts that were produced at the end of July before the suspension of the talks.

The European Union agreed with the Director-General's remarks on getting back to work across the board and leaving it to the Chairs on how to proceed with respect to sequencing, focus and format of the negotiations. Restricted inactivity has been unhealthy for the system. There is need to move before ministers are called in and there is quite a lot of technical work that needs to be done, including in areas other than agriculture. We should not back-load everything as this would be a recipe for failure, the EU said.

The US also agreed with Lamy's remarks. The recent US elections do not change its strong commitment to a successful Doha Development Agenda, the US said, adding that it agreed that members are now somewhere between intensified quiet diplomacy and contacts, and fully-fledged negotiations. It is important to get back to work across the board with the process being led by the Chairs of the negotiating groups. The format and timing should be organized by the Chairs.

China said that it shared the Director-General's views and supported his proposals. It was supportive of the idea of a 'soft' resumption of the negotiations. The Chairs of the negotiating groups should take the lead and this should be done across the board. It is also important to increase transparency and inclusiveness.

Indonesia said that it supported the relaunch of negotiations in all areas, as well as supporting a bottom-up approach that includes transparency and inclusiveness. All outstanding issues must be addressed. There is also need to assure developing countries that the negotiations are not being designed to subvert their development interests.

According to trade officials, there were no statements on behalf of the G33, the G20 and the G10 groupings in the WTO.

(* With inputs from Goh Chien Yen.)