WTO Delegates Decry ‘Gap’ between Talk and Action on Eve of Summer Break

29 July 2009

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy set out an ambitious autumn schedule for technical work in the Doha Round trade talks in two addresses to delegates just before the organisation breaks for its annual August holiday. But many officials were quick to point out the 'mismatch' between strong ambitions for the talks at the political level and a lack of progress in the negotiations in Geneva.

Several political statements on the Doha Round have emerged recently, including from the G8+G5 summit that was held in L'Aquila, Italy (see Bridges Weekly, 15 July 2009, http://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/bridges/issue-archive/g8g5-call-for-doha-conclusion-in-2010),  from a meeting of Asia-Pacific trade ministers in Singapore (see Bridges Weekly, 22 July 2009, http://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/bridges/news/apec-trade-ministers-condemn-protectionism),  and from a meeting of minister from the Cairns group of in Bali last month (see Bridges Weekly, 10 June 2009, http://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/bridges/issue-archive/doha-talks-get-new-energy-at-cairns-group-meeting).   All of those statements called for a prompt conclusion of the Doha Round of trade talks, which are now in their eighth year; the G8+G5 statement set the end of next year as a deadline for the conclusion of a global trade deal.

So far, though, many delegates say that the high-level proclamations have failed to produce any true progress in the negotiations back at the WTO's headquarters in Geneva. Speaking to a meeting of the WTO's Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) on Friday, Australian ambassador Peter Grey lamented what he called a "marked and embarrassing gap" between recent high-level statements and the actual progress that has been made in the talks.

Several other delegations echoed that sentiment. Mauritius, addressing the TNC on behalf of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries, warned that the ‘mismatch' between political statements and technical progress in the talks risked creating a credibility deficit for the WTO. In a similar vein, India's ambassador to the WTO, Ujal Singh Bhatia, decried what he called a "continuous deferment of real engagement" in the negotiations, according to a report in India's Business Standard. Speaking to a meeting of the WTO's General Council on Tuesday, the ambassador said the lack of progress undermined the goal of concluding the Round by the end of next year. Costa Rica, backed by several other delegations, said the 2010 deadline for a Doha deal was not realistic given the current state of the talks.

But the representative of the Brazilian delegation took a somewhat sunnier view. While acknowledging that delegates "have not achieved any significant forward movement" in the talks, the official cautioned against excessive pessimism. "This is not an easy process and it may take some time; but not so much time that would force us to miss the 2010 deadline drawn by many of our leaders," the official said. Other delegations backed Brasilia's appeal, calling the 2010 date ‘an urgent target'.

Addressing the General Council on Tuesday, Lamy said that at Friday's meeting of the TNC he had sensed there was "unanimous agreement" among delegations that if the Doha Round is to be completed by the end of next year, high-level political pronouncements must be translated into "tangible progress in the negotiations." And he added that he felt negotiators were up to the task. "There was also strong support for the process set out in the detailed road maps and for the need for all participants to be ready to work intensively in the autumn," Lamy said of the delegates' reactions at the TNC meeting. "The message was ‘all hands on deck'."

"Everyone said they were willing to pull up their socks" and get to work, one developed country trade official said on Wednesday. Despite some of the negative statements that were put forward, all of the delegations seemed to support Lamy's statement, the official added. "Generally, people are ready to get going," he said.

Lamy's statement to the TNC included a snapshot of the state of play in all of the main negotiating areas in the Doha Round talks, including industrial goods, agriculture, services, rules, trade facilitation, environmental goods, and intellectual property. He outlined persistent areas of disagreement, highlighted issues on which solid progress had already been made, and called on delegates to return from their summer holidays ready to work intensively to close the remaining gaps in the talks.

"It will be important that delegations signal their ‘big ticket' items but that they equally refrain from ‘hostage-taking' behaviour," Lamy told the delegates on Tuesday.

The negotiations on agriculture and non-agricultural market access (NAMA in WTO parlance), are important, Lamy said, but other negotiating committees will need to achieve a "commensurate level of certainty" if the Doha Round ‘single undertaking' - the notion that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed - is to be achieved. "We have to ensure that the whole caravan moves forward together and arrives on time," Lamy said.

As WTO headquarters begin to empty out for the organisation's summer break, delegates are looking ahead to a meeting of trade ministers that is set to be held in New Delhi from 3-4 September. That gathering, which will have the Doha Round as its focus, is intended to provide direction for the G20 summit of heads of state that the United States is hosting in Pittsburgh later that month.

"Pittsburgh will be the crunch moment," India's Bhatia told reporters after the meeting, Reuters reported.

Additional information

To read the full text of Lamy's remarks to the TNC, please click here: http://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news09_e/tnc_dg_stat_24jul09_e.htm

To read the full text of Lamy's remarks to the General Council, please click here: http://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news09_e/tnc_chair_report_28jul09_e.htm

ICTSD reporting; "Weak strategy by WTO members worries India," THE BUSINESS STANDARD, 29 July 2009; "WTO negotiators attack words and deeds mismatch," REUTERS, 24 July 2009.

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