Crunch Time in Geneva as Trade Negotiators Prepare for WTO Ministerial

3 December 2015

Less than two weeks remain before trade ministers begin their biennial conference in Nairobi, Kenya, with WTO members still deeply divided on specific deliverables and how to address the organisation’s future negotiating work, including the Doha Round.

The Nairobi ministerial conference is scheduled for 15-18 December, leaving little time remaining to sort out remaining differences in Geneva before officials board planes for the Kenyan capital.

With that timing in mind, members have spent the past six weeks putting forward a raft of textual proposals for the meeting’s outcome document, which they aim to make a ministerial declaration. The vast variety and competing priorities of such proposals has, however, reportedly proven extremely difficult to navigate, particularly as the ministerial draws ever nearer. (See Bridges Weekly, 26 November 2015 and 12 November 2015)

Various delegates say that the week ahead is set to be crucial in the negotiations, with meetings of the agriculture, rules, and development negotiating groups all scheduled between now and Friday.

Discussions at the WTO General Council this Monday, 30 November on the agenda item relating to the Doha negotiations – specifically, the report by Director-General Roberto Azevêdo in his capacity as chairman of the Trade Negotiations Committee – were suspended, with a report from the meeting indicating that members would revert to it “in due course” without specifying a date, though some sources suggested this could resume late this week.

Meanwhile, the WTO has released an overall programme outlining generally the timeline for the ministerial, which will formally kick off on the afternoon of 15 December and feature various plenary sessions and two accession ceremonies – for Afghanistan and Liberia – as well as the opening and closing events.

The chair of the conference is set to be Amina Mohamed, Kenyan Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The vice-chairs have also recently been named, with these set to be Alexander Mora, Costa Rica’s Minister for Foreign Trade; Carlo Calenda, Italy’s Vice Minister for Economic Development; and Gregory Domingo, Philippine Secretary of Trade and Industry.

Draft declaration

On Friday 27 November, the three WTO ambassadors acting as “facilitators” in drafting the ministerial declaration – Gabriel Duque of Colombia, Harald Neple of Norway, and Stephen Karau of Kenya – released a draft consolidated document for members to review.

The document was prepared under the facilitators’ own responsibility, with a clarification in the beginning that it is without prejudice to either the final outcome document or individual member stances. Speaking at the 27 November meeting, Azevêdo reportedly told members to take time to consider the content of the document, with a view to reporting back on Wednesday 2 December.

Members were set to meet on Wednesday afternoon in the “Room W” format – heads of delegation plus one – to continue work on the draft declaration, sources said, with many noting that the next stage of discussions on the ministerial declaration are set to be difficult.

Twenty years in

Split into a preamble and three main parts, the 5-page consolidated draft document’s sections address the multilateral trading system in the context of the global trade body’s 20th anniversary, any specific Nairobi deliverables, and the WTO’s future work, respectively. The document has been compiled following various submissions tabled in recent weeks by members both individually and jointly, addressing a wide range of issues.

The preamble section includes reaffirmations of both the “centrality of development” in the global trade body’s work, as well as the organisation’s role in global trade governance and commitment to the objective of sustainable development.

The preamble also features a pledge to “make the multilateral trading system responsive to existing challenges so as to provide a strong impetus to inclusive prosperity, welfare, and development, especially in view of the needs of our weaker and vulnerable members, in particular least developed countries (LDCs).”

Given that the Nairobi ministerial coincides with the organisation’s 20-year anniversary, the document notes under the first section a series of “achievements and challenges” that have been seen to date.

Regarding achievements, the document refers to both the importance of the organisation’s regular bodies in advancing its work, particularly trade monitoring, as well as its achievements in dispute settlement, while acknowledging in the latter some of the strains that system has faced in terms of caseload number and complexity. (See Bridges Weekly, 5 November 2015 and 9 September 2015)

However, when referring to the negotiating pillar of the WTO’s work, the draft document is less optimistic, noting “some progress” in areas such as the adoption of the Protocol Amending the TRIPS Agreement and the Trade Facilitation Agreement. However, “we note with regret that much less progress has been made in central elements of the WTO’s negotiating agenda, in particular in agriculture,” the document says in its 11th paragraph.

Deliverables for Nairobi

Under Part 2, the document includes bracketed text for whichever decisions may be adopted at the ministerial, referring specifically to non-violation and situation complaints under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, the WTO’s work programme on e-commerce, and the work programme on small economies.

In italics and in brackets is a placeholder for any other decision to be inserted into that section of the document.

These may include a possible deal on export competition in agriculture, as well as select issues of relevance to developing and least developed countries, as well as some outcomes from the “rules” negotiations.

However, sources say that divisions still remain on various key components within these areas, leaving it unclear what their outcome may be.

Regarding agriculture, for example, the chair of those negotiations – New Zealand Ambassador Vangelis Vitalis – convened small group consultations this week on both public stockholding and the special safeguard mechanism (SSM), with those meetings held on Monday and Tuesday respectively.

These meetings brought together around 30 or so countries from a cross-section of WTO members.

“The discussion was pretty pragmatic,” one developing country delegate commented. “Time is short,” the official continued, expressing confidence that there will be an outcome at the ministerial. Others noted again the divergence in positions and the major decisions members will need to take if they wish to ensure a substantive outcome.

Other agriculture developments this week include a new Tunisian proposal on agricultural export competition, as well as a verbal proposal by the US on export credits. Sources indicated that additional meetings on agriculture over the coming weekend are a possibility.

Doha, future work

Given the difficult nature of how exactly to address the future of the Doha Round and how to address new issues, the consolidated facilitators’ draft makes clear that it does not aim to tackle these “most contentious issues identified by members.” Another area that they specifically did not aim to address in the document, they said, involved “security exceptions,” given the deep divides in that area.

Rather, the third and final section of the facilitators’ consolidated draft includes a reference to the advances made in the Doha talks so far, together with regret that agreements in all negotiating areas have not been reached. Addressing agriculture reform will be addressed as a priority, it says.

Other paragraphs in that section feature a mention of “principles of Special and Differential Treatment and Less Than Full Reciprocity for developing and least-developed country members,” saying that these must play “integral parts” in the organisation’s future work, as well as referring to the importance of addressing the needs of LDCs, small, vulnerable economies, and the particular issues for recently acceded members.

Lastly, it includes language regarding regional trade deals, reaffirming that these should “remain complementary to, not a substitute for, the multilateral trading system.” The document also refers to building on the WTO’s relevant committee in this area as well as plans to conduct a study on the systemic implications of such agreements.

Proposed insertions

Since the release of the facilitators’ document on 27 November, some members have already tabled proposals for potential insertions or modifications to the text, particularly regarding the language on Doha and new issues.

One of these proposals was made jointly by China, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Venezuela, who asked for the insertion of a paragraph in the preamble reaffirming the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) and decisions and declarations adopted both in the Qatari capital 14 years ago and at subsequent ministerial meetings.

These members have also asked that the same paragraph be inserted in Part 3, on future work. Should these paragraphs be added in brackets, they said, the 23rd paragraph in the facilitators’ document – which welcomes any Doha-related advances and expresses regret at the failure to reach outcomes in all negotiating areas – should also be bracketed.

Paragraph 23 specifically reads as follows: “We welcome the advances made in the Doha Development Agenda. We regret that it has not been possible to reach agreement on all areas of the negotiations, including Agriculture, NAMA, Services, Rules, including fisheries subsidies, and TRIPS. In particular, we note the importance of agriculture to many WTO Members, including LDCs. We will therefore address all aspects of agriculture reform as a matter of priority.”

The African Group, for its part, has also tabled its own suggested addition to the preamble and Part 3, which like the proposal by China and others includes reaffirming the DDA and all ministerial decisions and declarations since the launch of the Round. It also refers to the decision adopted by the General Council on 1 August 2004, which relates to the Doha agenda work programme.

Alternatives to paragraph 23 of the facilitators’ text have also been suggested by Korea, which features three paragraphs which would instead note the difficulties in reconciling members’ disagreements on Doha. These paragraphs also would instruct officials “to continue deliberations” on next steps in addressing the unresolved issues from the Round, in order to decide on a “way forward” by the end of next year.

It also features language on addressing “any trade-related issues deemed necessary in order to stay relevant and in keeping with the evolution of the global economy,” while noting that these could be pursued “at least on an exploratory basis,” so long as they do not get in the way of addressing current, unresolved issues.

Questions of time

Whether and how these various issues may resolve themselves remains an open question, with delegates again referring to the limited time remaining and the nature of the current disagreements.

“Anything could happen at the moment,” said one developing country negotiator, noting the seriousness of the situation. “There’s still huge divergence,” the trade source said.

“I wouldn’t be so worried if we had more time,” a developed country delegate said.

ICTSD reporting.

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