Doha “Plan B” Hits Early Roadblock

8 June 2011

WTO members have agreed to try to strike deals this year on certain issues within the long-running Doha Round of global trade talks, while postponing attempts for a comprehensive multilateral accord. The challenge for them now is to identify what might become part of a so-called ‘early harvest' (if the term can be used nearly seven years after the talks were first scheduled to conclude).

Some trade officials in Geneva have suggested that securing agreement among the WTO's 153 members on which issues to pull out of the Doha agenda might prove nearly as hard as reaching the broad accord that has eluded them for nearly a decade.

It is already proving complicated. On Tuesday afternoon, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy postponed a meeting of the Doha Round's supervisory Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) that had been scheduled for 9 June, after his consultations with member governments determined that they were not yet in a position to provide the hoped-for direction on how to proceed. No new date was announced.

Governments are aiming to reach the issue-specific deals in time for the WTO's ministerial conference in mid-December, allowing themselves about five months, given the global trade body's August holiday.

In his remarks to a TNC meeting last week, Lamy pointed to the limited time available, urging members to refrain from seeking a "Christmas tree" of multiple issues for a December early harvest. On the basis of consultations with members, he suggested that top priority be given to a package of issues for least-developed countries (LDCs): duty- and quota-free access for their products, improved rules of origin, a waiver allowing countries to discriminate in favour of LDC services exports, and "a step forward" on cotton. At the other end of the spectrum, he suggested that market access in industrial goods, agriculture and services, trade remedies, and intellectual property issues be placed in a "slow lane," since agreement did not seem possible this year.

Considerably more hazy was the content of a ‘middle lane' of potential candidates for inclusion in a December package so that it goes beyond LDC-specific issues. Lamy left the matter to members' "ongoing deliberative process," saying only that they would need an "LDC-plus outcome with a significant development component by December."

Controversy over composition of "LDC-plus" package

During last week's meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee, the content of a prospective LDC-plus package was the subject of considerable disagreement, with members disputing each others' views on which issues are mature for an agreement (see Bridges Weekly, 1 June 2011).

For instance, the US argued that new rules limiting government support to the fisheries sector were ready for inclusion in a December package, but Japan and Korea, which have resisted strong disciplines on fisheries subsidies, disagreed. Other topics put on the table for December included trade facilitation, updating provisions on special and differential treatment for developing countries, agricultural export support, provisions on regional trade agreements or liberalised trade in environmental goods and services.

Many negotiators have cautioned that overloading the agenda for December would damage prospects for any sort of deal.

Asked this week by Bridges about how a December LDC-plus package might look, one delegate sighed, "if only one knew."

In the agriculture negotiations, the official said, it ought to be possible to include disciplines on export competition, not least because the phase-out of export subsidies is in line with the EU's ongoing reform of its Common Agricultural Policy. The Cairns Group and the agricultural G-20 (the developing country alliance in the Doha Round negotiations, not to be confused with the group of 20 leading rich and developing economies) have pushed for their inclusion. But it remains unclear as to whether export subsidies would figure in a December package, sources say, primarily because of political perceptions regarding the balance of concessions being made.

Despite assurances, negotiating mandate remains at risk

One of the thorny issues confronting WTO members as they explore the shape of a potential ‘Plan B' for the Doha Round - ‘Plan A', a comprehensive agreement, being beyond reach for the moment - is how a December early harvest would relate to what's left of the negotiating mandate.

Lamy said last week that "nobody wants to drop the Doha mandate" and "nobody wants to break the single undertaking," the notion that nothing in the WTO negotiations is agreed until everything is. He noted that the Doha mandate provided for those early agreements reached before the final conclusion of negotiations to be "implemented on a provisional or a definitive basis." (Doha Declaration, Paragraph 47)

Nevertheless, one trade negotiator told Bridges, the determination of which issues could be part of a December package cannot happen in isolation from the level of ambition for a potential agreement, as well as a work programme for outstanding issues in the Doha Round.

Another trade diplomat expressed concern that an ‘LDC-plus' package might turn out to be the only product of the negotiations. This would mean that agricultural subsidies and tariffs, which only came under the scope of global trade rules in the previous Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, would escape meaningful discipline yet again.

Sources report that Lamy is continuing to consult with members to find a way forward.

ICTSD reporting.

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