WTO services talks resume, uncertainty on plurilaterals

Original Publication Date: 
21 February, 2006

The Special Session of the Council for Trade in Services, meeting this week for the first time since the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference, has been taking up some organizational matters including on how to proceed with respect to the plurilateral process.

The Council had a brief meeting on Monday (13 February) morning, with members going through the standing agenda items, including assessment, LDC modalities and special and differential treatment.

Informal meetings and consultations among various groups and members have been taking place since. Several of the meetings have been between the "demandeurs" of plurilateral negotiations in various sectors, in efforts to prepare their plurilateral requests, by the deadline of the end of February.

According to trade officials and diplomats, there is still significant uncertainty over how the plurilateral negotiations will be conducted. Even the "demandeurs" in the various services sectors are not having a smooth time in their discussions on what collective requests to present, as there are differences among them on the commitments to request.

The Special Session is scheduled to meet again on Thursday (16 February) afternoon, where organizational matters, especially relating to the plurilateral negotiations, are expected to be discussed.

The Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration has set several time-lines for the services negotiations in its Annex C, including submission of any outstanding initial offers as soon as possible; submission of plurilateral requests by Groups of Members by 28 February or as soon as possible thereafter; the second round of revised offers to be submitted by 31 July; and final draft schedules of commitments to be submitted by 31 October.

At the meeting on Monday, Cuba made a statement elaborating on the reservations that it had made at the Hong Kong Ministerial on the services part (Annex C) of the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration. It also emphasized its view that the plurilateral process would be on a voluntary basis. The Council took note of the Cuban statement.

On the implementation of LDCs' services modalities, Ambassador Love Mtesa of Zambia, speaking on behalf of the LDCs, said that the group was still awaiting responses to their questions. The EU said that it already had a paper responding to the LDC questions. The US said that it had responded to some of the concerns of the LDCs during Council meetings.

On special and differential treatment, Kenya referred to S&D treatment proposals on services of the African Group and urged members to move quickly towards convergence in resolving these S&D treatment issues, according to diplomats. Chairperson Fernando De Mateo of Mexico had been holding informal consultations on these proposals and said that he would conduct further consultations.

At a press briefing Thursday morning, the Director of the WTO Services Division, Hamid Mamdouh, said that the Special Session meeting on Thursday afternoon was expected to discuss organizational matters.

The biggest question, he said, would be whether members will continue to meet by following the previous pattern of clusters of meetings: subsidiary bodies and regular Council meeting in the first week, and the Special Session meeting in the second week together with some bilateral meetings - and now, plurilateral meetings.

The aim, he indicated, would be to try and provide as much time as possible for the holding of bilateral and plurilateral meetings. After the Thursday afternoon meeting, the Chair of the Special Session is expected to consult further with members on how to proceed.

On the plurilateral process, Mamdouh said that delegations have been working in groups to prepare collective requests. To his knowledge, there were some
15-17 collective requests that are currently under preparation, to be submitted by the end February deadline or soon thereafter.

He said that what he has been hearing about the collective requests is 'slightly worrying' in the sense that the discussions are still taking place among the demandeurs who are trying to agree on common denominators.

Obviously, Mamdouh said, the demandeurs have varying levels of ambition and what seems to be happening is that they tend to agree on the lowest common denominator.

Mamdouh also indicated that it was not clear in the minds of the proponents how the plurilateral meetings are going to be organized.

The requests will be addressed to selective countries, but whether they will be known to other members, i. e. to what extent will the process be transparent, is one of the issues that the proponents are currently talking about, he said.

When asked about Mode 4 (movement of natural persons), Mamdouh said that the overwhelming majority of commitments are confined to intra-corporate transferees and business visitors.

He added that a very positive element in Annex C on Mode 4 is the specificity of Mode 4-related objectives, particularly in reference to independent professionals and contractual service suppliers.

(* With inputs from Goh Chien Yen.)