Doha Impasse Casts Shadow over Informal Farm Trade Talks

27 June 2012

Informal talks on how best to implement existing farm trade rules made slow progress last week, officials said, in the absence of a broader momentum to conclude the Doha Round of negotiations at the WTO.

The meetings, which were held in the margins of the global trade body's regular Committee on Agriculture, were an attempt to improve understanding of current disciplines on farm trade, agreed almost two decades ago at the end of the Uruguay Round.

But the gloomy outlook for Doha cast a shadow over the discussions, sources said, as delegates shied away from discussing any issue that could be linked with negotiations.

Trade ministers declared that the Doha talks are in an ‘impasse' when they met last December (see Bridges Daily Update 4, 18 December 2011) - prompting fears that other WTO functions could be harmed as well.

"You can see how much oxygen the negotiating function gives the WTO," one delegate told Bridges glumly.

Export restrictions: "massive debate"

However, others took heart from the very fact that informal talks took place last week.

One told Bridges that a "constructive discussion" had taken place on the rules covering how governments should report agricultural export restrictions to the WTO, and on consulting with trading partners before introducing new measures.

Japan - which first initiated the informal talks some months ago - had "gone out of its way" to delink the issue from the Doha negotiations, one trade official said.

Last Monday's discussions focused on a clause of the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture that requires governments to consider how export bans or restrictions on foodstuffs could affect food security in other countries, and to inform the WTO Committee on Agriculture.

"There were two camps," one delegate told Bridges. Some countries, including Japan, favoured an interpretation of "foodstuffs" that covers feed and seeds, while others preferred a narrower definition.

Egypt argued that a definition of "basic foodstuffs" already exists at the WTO, which should at a minimum be covered by the disciplines.

Delegates also reviewed rules on the timing of countries' notifications to the WTO, and discussed clauses that exempt developing countries from having to report measures to the global trade body unless they are net food exporters of the specific foodstuff concerned.

"Then there was a massive debate on where we should go next, and no one could agree," another delegate told Bridges.

Some resisted suggestions that the process could lead to revised guidelines for WTO members on how to notify export restrictions, arguing instead that the discussion could lead to "better notification practices."

Market price support: members butt heads

Talks over how best to measure market price support - first initiated informally by the US about nine months ago - ran into questions over procedure, as some countries questioned the need for further discussions.

"China, India, and Pakistan don't think we need to talk about this," one official told Bridges bluntly. The source added that countries use different methodologies to notify their support levels because they "have their own understanding" of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.

The US has emphasised that discussions would only cover the interpretation of existing rules, and be based on data already notified to the WTO. However, one delegate observed that larger developing countries might perceive the initiative as targetting them in particular.

A study published last September by a US law firm looked at developing country farm support calculations and contributed towards spurring discussion on the topic.

The US has signalled that it is willing to discuss market price support under the auspices of the Committee on Agriculture, as part of a broader review of domestic support issues if needed. Although opponents have argued that there is insufficient agreement for the issue to be discussed in the committee, others have said countries do not need consensus before raising items for discussion.

"Sliver of hope"

Countries could find a "sliver of hope" in the long-running talks on the list of significant exporters that are required to notify exports to the WTO so that trading partners can monitor the possible use of export subsidies, one developed country official told Bridges.

A new "non-paper" tabled by five developing countries - China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Turkey - could help breathe new life into the discussions, the official said.

Informal talks have sought to explore ways to update the country list, which was originally established in 1995 - although these discussions have again become bogged down in controversy.

The non-paper argues that WTO members need to update not just the country list and base years, but also the products covered - which the co-sponsors argue should include ethanol, among other things.

Spectre of paralysis

Trade negotiators told Bridges that, without positive engagement among WTO members, they feared that the institution could be overcome by paralysis.

"No movement is possible, nobody is willing to engage," sighed one delegate, adding that "it's almost as if people are daring each other to engage in disputes."

"We've got into the very bad habit of saying ‘no' to everything," concurred another.

While the WTO's dispute settlement function could in theory be strengthened by a protracted negotiating stalemate, as countries seek to resolve issues through the institution's legal process, delegates warned that it could be heavily strained if a large number of disputes were brought at once. (For more on agriculture disputes at the WTO, see the related story in this issue.)

"Some of the legitimacy of the WTO comes from its negotiating function, its agenda for tomorrow's world," one observed.

The outgoing Norwegian chair of the Committee on Agriculture, Jonas Skei, echoed these concerns in his farewell remarks last Wednesday.

Members should "spend less time on discussing legal provisions and more time discussing members' policies; less time on trying to define what the secretariat and the chair may or may not do, and more time on the real concerns between members," he told the committee.

Emalene Marcus-Burnett of Barbados took over as the new committee chair at the meeting.

ICTSD reporting.

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