WTO Ag Talks To “Hit the Ground Running” in January – Chair

22 December 2010

Farm trade negotiators must "hit the ground running" when they have s return to the WTO in January, the chair of the Doha Round agriculture talks warned last week. However, with no new signs of whether major players can offer new concessions, delegates are hovering between renewed hope and scepticism on the prospects for any breakthrough in the troubled multilateral negotiations.

Ambassador David Walker, the New Zealander chairing the WTO agriculture negotiations, told members that he would initiate consultations on unresolved issues on 17 January, as per the schedule outlined last month for a renewed push to deliver a Doha deal in 2011 (see Bridges Weekly, 9 December 2010). WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has encouraged chairs to develop revised draft texts during the first quarter of next year, ahead of a possible ministerial gathering in June or July.

The agriculture consultations in January will be held in parallel to discussions on industrial goods, so that senior negotiators can explore potential trade-offs between the two negotiating areas, sources said.

On agriculture, discussions would first focus on the handful of questions that the chair had identified as outstanding in a March 2010 report (see Bridges Weekly, 24 March 2010). Negotiations have effectively been frozen since then, a standstill the negotiators attribute to the absence of any sign that political leaders were ready to reach a deal.

Walker told trade officials that his consultations were likely first to address how complex tariffs could be expressed in simpler forms; the 'special safeguard mechanism' that would allow developing countries to impose temporary additional duties in the event of a sudden import surge or price decline; and rules governing whether countries would be allowed to create new import quotas for their 'sensitive' products.

"If I were in your shoes, these are some of the areas that I would spend a bit of time thinking about in preparation for when we resume our work," Walker told a 10 December meeting of the entire WTO membership.

In addition to consulting on unresolved issues, the chair told delegates that he would continue technical work on the data that members will need to provide when finalising and scheduling the commitments they are negotiating. Topics on which members have called for further clarification would also be discussed, he said, and typographical errors in the draft would be corrected.

Changed atmosphere

Trade sources said that the renewed push for a deal had given negotiators a new sense of purpose. "The atmosphere has changed," one negotiator told Bridges. "People are saying they're committed to rolling up their sleeves," noted another.

However, delegates are also aware that the costs of failure could be huge. "If we don't come out of this dead-end street in the coming year, the whole credibility of the multilateral system is lost," said one.

"The real thing is willingness on the part of major players" said another, in comments echoed by several officials. "Is there a plan in the US?" asked one, who noted that many countries were looking to Washington for signals of willingness to re-energise the talks.

Countries such as Brazil and Argentina were reportedly keen for the chair to review the draft text in a holistic manner, rather than just focusing on the issues that had been bracketed or otherwise annotated to indicate a lack of agreement. However other members, such as the EU, were said to be unwilling to reopen areas of the text on which a provisional consensus had already emerged.

One delegate noted that there was a need for countries to review whether they "still agree" to the things they agreed in 2008, when WTO members came closer than they had before or since to an agreement. Others cautioned that the current draft text did not in fact represent an agreed document.

Some noted that the relatively few outstanding areas of disagreement in agriculture meant that senior officials should concentrate their efforts elsewhere. "The big block is NAMA" said one, in a reference to the talks on industrial goods.

Small groups

Major trading powers were continuing to meet in small group and bilateral discussions, sources said, in order to explore informally whether partners were ready to discuss new trade-offs and concessions. "The sniffing is going on in smaller groups," noted one delegate.

A group of eleven major trading partners, which have met recently to discuss the talks, were expected to consult each other again in January, sources said. The group, dubbed the G-11 and representing a cross-section of negotiating interests, reportedly includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, the EU, India, Japan, Mauritius, South Africa and the US.

Delegates from small developing countries are nonetheless anxious that the process remains

inclusive, transparent and participatory, said one negotiator.

"Tight" time frame

One official queried how much progress could be achieved before Walker returns to capital in April. "The time frame is extremely tight," the negotiator contended. Others queried whether it would actually be possible to develop a revised negotiating text on agriculture by the end of March.

Senior trade officials, as well as Walker, are expected to attend the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos during the last week of January. Negotiators have traditionally looked to the gathering for political signals of countries' willingness to move in the talks at the WTO, although as a consequence the Geneva discussions have only tended to build momentum from February onwards.

"There are a lot of question marks" sighed one official, who nonetheless noted that "all of a sudden the thing could move if there's political will".

ICTSD reporting.

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