WTO talks on resumption of Doha talks

Original Publication Date: 
15 November, 2006

Members of the World Trade Organization appear to be in favour of resuming the Doha negotiations, suspended by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy (and endorsed by the Trade Negotiations Committee) in July, and subsequently "taken note of" by the General Council.

At a Lamy-convened 'Green Room' meeting Friday evening, while delegations generally favoured resumption, opinion was divided whether it should be restarted formally or informally.

Some key countries advised caution, and suggested that there should be informal consultations and discussions on whether there was flexibility in the positions of key members. Others, including several of the chairs of committees, appeared to favour formal resumption of negotiations.

A few members also cautioned that the outcome of the US mid-term elections and the new House and Senate under Democratic control would have to be weighed carefully and cautiously.

The Friday green room had been preceded by a meeting on 9 November of some 20 key delegations at the New Zealand mission, convened by New Zealand Ambassador Crawford Falconer (who is the chair of the agriculture negotiations).

This meeting, while focussing on agriculture, also appears to have covered general issues of the resumption of negotiations. The Thursday meeting was followed on Friday morning by a more general meeting at the WTO, also convened by Falconer (in his capacity as New Zealand envoy, rather than as chair of the agriculture negotiations).

These meetings have been preceded by a number of informal bilateral and other discussions of trade diplomats - several of whom have been feeling that the 'suspension' was an error, and the WTO talks should be kept going with technical work on a number of issues that would still need to be resolved.

At the 9 November meeting at the New Zealand mission, ambassadors from some 20 countries had discussed how to get out of the current suspension.

According to a trade diplomat, some of the members at the meeting said that the resumption of the negotiations could only come about after an official announcement has been made at the General Council.

According to trade sources, Lamy had told the Japanese agricultural minister in a bilateral meeting on Tuesday, that there were two ways in which the talks could recommence: one, an official announcement and the other, a de facto resumption, with members holding consultations, leading to an effective resumption of the negotiations.

In other consultations, the newly formed non-group of 6 (Chile, Canada, Kenya, Indonesia, Norway and New Zealand) had their second meeting on 8-9 November to further discuss how to restart the negotiations. As pointed out by a trade diplomat, it is interesting to note that the Chair of the General Council (Norway), Chair of the NAMA Negotiating Group (Canada) and the Chair of the agriculture negotiating group (New Zealand) are part of this non-group.

At the informal meeting of the entire membership held in the WTO on Friday morning by Falconer, he made clear that he had called the meeting in his personal capacity and not as the current chair of the agriculture negotiating group, as the negotiations are formally suspended.

At the meeting, he took note of the fact that several members have been meeting among themselves. However, the "quiet diplomacy" between members especially among the main players to make progress on the negotiations has not been transparent and should be multilateralised and therefore made more transparent.

Falconer pointed out that there is still much work that remains to be done by the officials at the technical level, before any political decision can be made. Most of the members such as Brazil speaking on behalf of the G20 which took the floor supported the need for technical work to resume.

Members recognized that the ministers will not resolve the outstanding technical issues. And that there will be no result if these issues are not settled before any political decision on the major issues are taken.

In this regard, members felt that the reference papers of the Chair of the agriculture negotiating group produced before the formal suspension would be an important starting point to recommence work from, bearing in mind that these are not consensual and adopted texts.

The US cited their trade representative's article published recently in the "Wall Street Journal" outlining how to move forward in the negotiations. In the article, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab reiterated the US demand for greater market access by making deep cuts in farm and industrial goods tariffs, limiting the scope of sensitive products for the developed countries and special products for the developing countries.

Cuba stressed that resumption should not be an end in itself and members need to address the content and development dimension of the negotiations as well.

India also said at the meeting that if some major players are unable to move from well-known positions, resumption will not be helpful.

Speaking to some journalists after the meeting, Falconer said that he sensed that "people are more pragmatic" and that they want to meet. He said that he has not decided when the next meeting would be held, but possibly in a few weeks' time. In the meantime, he will continue to hold small group meetings in his personal capacity.

He told journalists that he disagreed with the view that the re-start of the negotiations should be based on ostensible changes in members' positions.

"Everyone recognizes that there is no radical change in members' position," he said, adding, "I do not want to do nothing in agriculture."

Asked by a journalist about the March 2007 deadline when the US fast track authority (Trade Promotion Authority, TPA) expires, Falconer said " I don't buy it... forget the deadline in March". "Measure progress day by day and week by week rather than whether we are moving away from this deadline," he pointed out.

At the Lamy-convened green room meeting, members were generally in favour of resumption, but expressed differing views as to how soon it should take place and on what basis.

According to a senior trade diplomat present at the meeting, the Chairs of the Negotiating Groups (agriculture, services , NAMA and trade facilitation) were keen to start as soon as possible. They pointed out that now that the Congressional mid-term election in the US is over, which was one of the reasons for the suspension, the negotiations should resume.

They also informed the meeting that several members have been meeting during this period of suspension. This is however a non-transparent process and the Chairs felt the need to multilateralise this process.

Citing the positive response of the members at the morning meeting, Falconer pointed out that "people are keen to start work."

Other members present at the meeting such as Australia, Japan and the EU also argued for a restart of the negotiations as soon as possible.

On the other hand, some key nations such as Brazil, Argentina, the US and India were more concerned about how the negotiations will be restarted, and expressed the need for the talks to recommence on a firmer basis. They said that Lamy should be reasonably sure that there is a chance for success.

They mentioned the need for some indication that members are willing to move from their well-known positions that have led to the suspension.

According to the senior trade diplomat, these member countries were nonetheless cautiously supportive of the resumption.

Summing up the meeting, Lamy recognized members' desire to resume negotiations, while not committing on how and when this should be done. He told members that he did not want to make a "big bang" announcement restarting the negotiations at this stage, and encouraged the Chairs to continue with their ongoing informal consultations.

He informed those at the meeting that he will consult more broadly about the resumption of the negotiations after he returns from the APEC Summit meeting to be held in Hanoi on 18-19 November. He said that he will convene a meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee next week.