Agriculture Talks Inch Forward
Trade delegates met in a special (negotiating) session of the WTO Committee on Agriculture on 8 October to wrap up three days of talks. The talks, which had started on 6 October (see BRIDGES Weekly, 6 October 2004), focused mainly on the process for bringing forward the negotiations following a framework deal agreed in July (see BRIDGES Weekly, 3 August 2004). The Chair, Ambassador Tim Groser of New Zealand, gave his assessment of the situation, and outlined a plan for future work, which will be technical in nature.
Groser: negotiations based on concrete text
Chair Groser said he felt the first set of negotiations following the July package had been constructive, and called for very specific textual inputs from this point on, rather than a more general exchange of views. In terms of texts, he felt some parts of the so-called Harbinson text -- which dates back to February 2003 -- could serve "as a basis". During their informal talks on 6 and 7 October, Members had already discussed some aspects of this text. Chair Groser said that the role of the technical work envisaged now was to narrow down options. Political decisions would then be needed on the options. Members generally supported this approach.
In their statements, a number of Members called for a transparent and inclusive process. Chair Groser said the negotiations had to be effective in order not be diverted into smaller closed groups. He stressed that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," and said clear rules for the sharing of information were needed.
The G-20 group of developing countries -- including Brazil, India and China -- proposed that Members focus on general rules first, with exceptions being negotiated later. Mauritius, the Philippines and Zimbabwe emphasised that special and differential treatment (S&D) for developing countries should fall into the former category. Chair Groser clarified that some S&D issues could easily be included in the general rules, while others, such as the special safeguard mechanism (SSM, used to protect developing countries from import surges) could be "logically analysed" in the interim.
Croatia, speaking for a group of newly acceded countries, called for flexibility for this group. Nigeria, speaking for the African Group, drew attention to the cotton issue, calling again for it to be kept as a permanent agenda item. Nigeria also said the group would make a proposal shortly.
Green box under fire
During the informal discussions on 7 October, the Cairns group countries (agricultural exporters) indicated that they would like to see strong disciplines on Green Box subsidies (trade-neutral subsidies). According to the July package, the Green Box should be "reviewed and clarified" to ensure that it is at most minimally trade distorting. The EC and Switzerland, speaking for the G-10 net food-importing developed countries, opposed the Cairns group approach, stressing that discussing possible time limits or ceilings for Green Box support would be beyond the scope of what was agreed. The US felt there was some scope for revision of the box, but that its integrity had to be maintained.
The next agriculture negotiating sessions are scheduled for 15-19 November and 13-17 December.
ICTSD reporting; "WTO Members Hold Low Key Talks On Agriculture, Focus on Procedures," WTO REPORTER, 12 October 2003.