WTO Farm Talks Restart As Members Await New US Trade Rep

18 February 2009

The chair of the WTO agriculture negotiations has announced he plans to continue his recent series of consultations with negotiating groups, in a bid to restart the faltering Doha farm trade talks. But Members remain cautious about how much progress can be achieved in the absence of a new US Trade Representative, whose nomination has still to be confirmed by Congress.
The chair, Ambassador Crawford Falconer, told a 12 February meeting open to all Members that he planned to convene 'carousel' meetings to explore perceptions of the overall “balance” in his draft text, released in December 2008 (see Bridges Weekly, 10 December 2008, http://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/bridges/news/revised-ag-text-reflects-progress-but-final-deal-still-elusive).  These consultations – which the chair also dubbed 'hub and spokes' meetings – would involve him speaking with each of the main negotiating groups in turn, and with some individual delegations such as the EU.
Falconer expressed hope that, after two 'rounds' of such consultations perhaps lasting about a month, a set of issues would then emerge that Members could discuss in small invitation-only meetings involving a cross-section of interests – known as 'room E' meetings, after the room at the WTO in which they are usually held. These would be interspersed by 'transparency' meetings to which all Members would be invited.
Falconer's consultations with negotiating groups so far this year had concentrated mainly on the right way to proceed in the talks at this stage. Now, however, substantive questions could be discussed, he said.
Trade sources acknowledged, however, that the talks could amount to 'treading water' until a new US Trade Representative is in post, briefed, and willing and ready to engage in trade negotiations. Some delegates suggested that it could take much of March for Obama's nominee, Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, to be briefed on trade policy issues after being confirmed by Congress (see Bridges Weekly, 14 January 2009, http://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/bridges/news/obama-picks-former-mayor-ron-kirk-for-top-trade-post). 
If this were to be the case, delegates said, it would be difficult for Members to reach agreement on more 'political' issues until at least 2 April, when twenty major trading powers are due to meet in London. Other negotiators suggested that little might be achieved in the negotiations until after the Indian elections in May.
However, others expressed cautious optimism that progress on technical issues could be achieved through the process outlined by the chair, as groups clarified their positions on complex questions such as the 'special safeguard mechanism' that developing countries will be able to use to raise tariffs temporarily in the event of an import surge or price depression. Falconer himself indicated that the consultations could allow Members to discuss differences of opinion concerning his December text, as well as misunderstandings.
ICTSD reporting.

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