WTO chief urges members to redouble negotiating efforts as July deadline approaches

8 May 2015

The ongoing efforts to craft a Doha Round work programme have seen “positive engagement” in recent weeks, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said on Tuesday. However, the global trade chief warned that members need to “redouble” their efforts and start tackling certain “gateway issues” if they are to meet their July deadline.

“While progress has been difficult, this was clearly to be expected, and there are reasons to be positive,” Azevêdo said at the 5 May meeting of the General Council, which is the organisation’s highest decision-making body outside of the ministerial conference.

In the weeks and months ahead, members must now work on finding an overall balance across the various negotiating areas, Azevêdo continued, with the WTO chief reaffirming his statement from last week’s Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) meeting that he would be looking at ways to facilitate talks on possible horizontal trade-offs.

Core areas

While the three core areas of this planned work programme are understood to be agriculture,  non-agricultural market access (NAMA), and services, one of the concerns that has come to the fore over the past several weeks is the apparent de facto sequencing that has emerged between them.

At last week’s TNC, Ambassador Remigi Winzap of Switzerland, who chairs the Negotiating Group on Market Access, noted that there is “difficulty for some members to conceive outcomes on NAMA market access in the absence of visible progress in agriculture.”

Ambassador Gabriel Duque of Colombia, who chairs the services negotiations, said at the same meeting that some delegations similarly questioned at a recent open-ended discussion the need to advance the services talks, given the limited movement to date on agriculture and other Doha Round areas.

Meanwhile, New Zealand Ambassador John Adank, who chairs the agriculture trade talks, reported that his assessment of the overall situation in that negotiating area “is a sombre one.”

“In key areas we are, as yet, far from convergence on certain threshold issues. This in turn inhibits progress on other issues,” he said at the 27 April TNC meeting.

Among the more difficult areas, he said, were the discussions within the domestic support pillar of the agriculture talks, specifically over the nature and extent of disciplines on overall trade-distorting support, as well as how to treat de minimis support, seen as the most trade-distorting among WTO rules.

The debate over whether the negotiating area of rules – which covers disciplines relating to anti-dumping duties, subsidies, and countervailing duty measures, as well as fisheries subsidies – should also be considered a “core issue” remains unresolved, sources say.

A meeting of the rules negotiating group earlier this week saw members discuss what role that area should play, following an informal “refresher” session on the history of the talks. While Japan and fellow members of the Friends of Anti-Dumping Negotiations have tabled a paper on recalibrating the anti-dumping talks, proposing that core deliverables in this area be due process and transparency, Australia has suggested that this paper has set unrealistic goals.

Brazil, Canada, and India were among those saying at the rules meeting that this area cannot advance ahead of the three core issues, while the US reportedly said that it is difficult to determine what is “doable” in rules when it is unclear what will occur in agriculture, NAMA, and services.

Recalibration?

The ongoing debate over whether and how to “recalibrate” certain core areas of the Doha Round trade talks has seen little sign of resolution, with members sparring particularly over how much to build off of the past draft texts in agriculture and non-agricultural market access, known respectively as Rev. 4 and Rev. 3.

At last week’s TNC, some officials, such as US Ambassador Michael Punke, repeated earlier warnings about the potential pitfalls of not recalibrating the ambition of the Doha Round talks.

"We cannot bury our head in the sand and wish reality away, and in April 2015, our choice is clear:  either we adapt our collective expectations significantly and quickly, or the WTO must begin to confront the prospect of a definitive failure,” Punke said.

The US official specifically referred to the discussions on domestic agricultural support, acknowledging that Washington’s call for other major agricultural subsidisers to sign onto new disciplines in the area of trade-distorting support may be difficult.

However, Punke questioned some members’ push to adhere closely to the 2008 draft texts. “We find this misguided, since those texts never found consensus. And indeed the very reasons that prevented consensus in 2008 have grown more profound in the seven years since, namely the changed role of emerging economies.”

In his intervention at last week’s TNC, Chinese Ambassador Yu Jianhua countered that the negotiations should not move away from previous negotiating mandates, while calling for Rev. 4 and Rev. 3 to serve as the “basis and benchmark for negotiations.”

“As a matter of principle, whatever the new approaches may be, it is always important to ensure all members to move in the same direction. In other words, we cannot afford having a scenario where some members are given more flexibilities, while some other members are having less or even required to do more than what is required by the 2008 modalities,” the Chinese official said, warning that this is indeed what is occurring in the domestic support pillar of the agriculture discussions.

China and India have been among those pushing back against the calls for recalibration in the Doha Round talks, citing concerns over the push by some members for so-called differentiation among developing countries.

Implementing Bali outcomes

With the December ministerial conference in Nairobi in their sights, one other element that has been deemed a potential determinant of its success is the level of progress in implementing the outcomes from the previous such meeting in Bali, Indonesia almost two years ago.

Along with reaching a formal agreement on trade facilitation, the December 2013 ministerial had yielded a series of decisions relating to agriculture and development issues.

The committee on rules of origin (ROO), for example, met last week to discuss the progress to date in implementing the Bali decision setting non-binding multilateral guidelines for WTO members in developing their ROO frameworks for least developed countries (LDCs).

At that meeting, Bangladesh submitted a paper on behalf of the LDC Group urging fellow WTO members to advance the implementation of that decision, outlining six specific questions to preference-giving countries on how they run their ROO schemes. (For more details on the ROO discussions, see Bridges Africa, 6 May 2015)

Another Bali outcome was a decision on putting into operation a previously-agreed waiver granting preferential treatment for LDCs services and services suppliers.

While only one country to date – Canada – has submitted a formal notification of the sectors and modes of supply where it will give preferential treatment, General Council Chair Fernando De Mateo, Mexico’s WTO Ambassador, affirmed on Tuesday that other various members are working to complete their necessary domestic processes in other to submit their own notifications ahead of a July target.

Regarding the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, four members have submitted instruments of acceptance. For the deal to enter into force, at least two-thirds of the organisation’s 161 members must ratify it domestically.

ICTSD reporting.

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