"Doha Light" Takes Shape as WTO Members Lower Ambitions

1 June 2011

After weeks of consultations following an impasse in the long-running Doha Round negotiations, WTO members say they are now ready to pursue clinching an "early harvest" package focused on least-developed countries (LDCs) by the end of the year.

Following high-level meetings among political leaders in the context of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference and an Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Ministerial, WTO members convened on 31 May in an informal Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) meeting in Geneva. At the TNC, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy outlined a "three lane" approach to eventually resolving the Doha Round. His proposal would put LDC-specific subjects on a "fast lane" and set up an LDC-plus "middle lane," which would include additional issues that are near maturity and maintain a development focus. Outstanding issues such as agriculture, services, and non-agricultural market access (NAMA) would be left on a "slow lane" for resolution after the much-anticipated December Ministerial Conference in Geneva.

While many members expressed disappointment at the current state of the negotiations, they all recognised that agreement on a full Doha package by year's end was unlikely. Therefore, an abridged version for December represented the next best alternative. Even so, the inability of members to reach the original Doha "Plan A" left some disappointed.

"The current impasse is weakening the whole multilateral trade system, and for all the wrong reasons," the EU said in a statement.

Broad agreement on development focus

While agreeing to Lamy's proposal, members insisted that the principle of a ‘single undertaking' - in which "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" - should remain under this new plan. They called for the implementation of an "early harvest" as discussed in Paragraph 47 of the Doha Declaration. Under this paragraph, agreements reached "at an early stage" may be "implemented on a provisional or a definitive basis." These would then be considered when members evaluate the balance in the negotiations as a whole.

Lamy's "three lane" proposal was met with broad support from WTO members. They generally agreed that the December mini-package must have a development focus, and there must be a clear work programme in place to deal with the remaining issues. Just one day prior to the TNC meeting, South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies had told reporters that his country would be against any version of Doha that might stray from the development goals of the Round. That same sentiment was echoed by various members at Tuesday's TNC gathering.

Challenges in defining LDC-plus

However, members disagreed on what issues should be added to the LDC-plus package for December. Areas of disagreement regarding the "plus" part of the "LDC-plus" package included special and differential treatment proposals, trade facilitation, and export substitution. Fisheries subsidies provide a prime example of countries' varying perceptions on the maturity of "plus" issues: while the US asserted that the subject was ready to be included in the December package, Japan and Korea made a point to disagree.

The potential inclusion of cotton among the December deliverables also proved contentious. Burkina Faso, speaking on behalf of itself and fellow Cotton-4 countries Benin, Chad, and Mali, urged for the cotton issue to be resolved by December, stressing that the US and EU could do more to make that possible.

However, US Ambassador Michael Punke's response made clear that "[i]f people wish to discuss cotton, everyone's cotton programs must be on the table." This would "require a degree of transparency that is sorely lacking," he said, adding that the US would "not negotiate in the dark" on this matter.

The prospect of future disagreement over what to include in the LDC-plus package left various members concerned. China stressed that members should "make it clear upfront [that] what is supposed to be an LDC Plus should not end up destroying deliverables for LDCs."

Punke reminded fellow members that "all major players must take steps that are politically difficult" if the December package was to succeed. He added that "flowery speeches about supporting LDCs and care for the WTO system mean very little if they are not backed up by a clearly-stated willingness to make politically-difficult choices."

Outside the WTO, Stuart Harbinson - Hong Kong's former WTO ambassador - raised similar concerns. In a new e-book he agreed with the idea of identifying a smaller package of deliverables for the December Ministerial. However, he warned against holding high hopes for such a process, considering that "the last thing the WTO needs at present is to have a lengthy and acrimonious discussion about ‘deliverables' culminating in a paltry agreement or, worse still, no agreement at all.'"

Paris meeting sets the stage

A meeting on 26 May in Paris among twenty trade ministers paved the way for the next steps in the Doha Round, as discussed in the TNC. At the meeting, which took place on the sidelines of the OECD Ministerial, trade ministers already indicated that the WTO should look to pursue a ‘Plan B' for Doha. They were ready to push for a positive Doha outcome by the end of the year, even if it was not a full Doha package.

Lamy told reporters in Paris that ministers now see December's Ministerial as "not a deadline and [...] not a package," but rather a "restating, re-sequencing of the Doha agenda in trying to sort of crop fruits which are riper than others - and which are politically the most important in terms of development, starting of course with LDCs."

Australian Trade Minister Craig Emerson, who convened the meeting among trade ministers, noted that "a down-payment in December could generate much-needed momentum for the stalled negotiations."

However, Emerson warned against reaching a "situation that if we are able to reach agreement on a December package, the other matters that are more complex simply get deferred to the never-never."

The next informal TNC meeting, which aims to have clearer targets in place for the December Ministerial, will be held on 9 June.

ICTSD reporting; "Doha Trade Talks Won't Be Concluded This Year, South Africa's Davies Says," BLOOMBERG, 30 May 2011; "US lays out principles for limited WTO Doha package," THE HILL, 31 May 2011.

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