WTO Members Begin Eyeing Options for Doha Work Programme

13 February 2014

With the Bali ministerial now behind them, the process to develop a Doha "work programme" by year's end is beginning to gear up in Geneva, with WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo urging members last week to use 2014 to get the struggling negotiations "back on track."

Two months ago, WTO trade ministers were able to announce their first multilateral deal in nearly 20 years. The Bali package, named after the Indonesian island province where it was agreed, also marked the first deliverables from the Doha Round of negotiations, which have been underway since November 2001.

However, the deal in Bali - despite facing its own series of hurdles - covered only a few elements of the Doha Round, such as trade facilitation, leaving the more difficult subjects to be dealt with at a later time.

Ministers therefore directed WTO members in December to create a work programme that would outline the next steps for the Doha negotiations, with an eye to concluding the entire Round. The work programme would be developed in line with the guidance provided at the previous 2011 ministerial, where members were told to be flexible in their negotiating approaches in order to break the impasse.

March General Council

Speaking to WTO members last Thursday at a meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee, which is tasked with the overall Doha talks, Azevêdo said that he has directed negotiating group chairs to being consultations with members to try to pinpoint which issues could move forward.

The Director-General has asked the chairs to report back on these findings at the upcoming meeting of the WTO General Council - the organisation's highest decision-making body outside the ministerial - on 14 March.

The negotiating group chairs will determine the format of the meetings, Azevêdo said, and he is imposing no set timeframe on this initial process. Both he and the chairs, he added, aim to approach these discussions "with a completely open mind" in order to hear the range of members' views.

However, as members begin their consultations, Azevêdo urged them to keep a series of six parameters in mind: preserving development as a central pillar; setting goals that are doable and realistic; recognising which issues are interconnected; being creative and open-minded; ensuring inclusivity and transparency; and maintaining a sense of urgency.

The latter, some trade analysts and officials have warned, could be particularly difficult in the year ahead, given that there is no looming deadline - such as the Bali ministerial - to spur discussions forward.

"There is real political momentum and we must build on it," Azevêdo told members, urging them to consider the success in Bali as an opportunity. "The work has just begun."

Bringing back the "core issues"

While recognising the successes of the December ministerial, the Director-General warned that Bali's approach - advancing a deal focusing on the easier areas of the Round - would probably not work for future agreements.

Instead, members should be open to at least discussing the round's most challenging topics, even if they later decide that these are not yet ready for renewed negotiations.

"Most likely, any future multilateral engagement will require outcomes on agriculture," Azevêdo said last week, noting that the subject is a central pillar of the Doha Round. "Many delegations have been stressing that, if agriculture comes into play, then so do the other legs of the tripod: industrial goods and services."

A subset of WTO ministers who met in the Swiss resort in Davos last month had similarly agreed that these three areas - often referred to as the market access "trinity" - will need to feature in the upcoming talks. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 January 2014)

Whether or not to try and close the Round in one attempt, as members have tried to do in the past with the principle of the "single undertaking," or to instead pass a series of "early harvests," is another question for members in the coming year.

"Of course what we want to do is to find a path towards the conclusion of the Round," Azevêdo said on Thursday. "It may be that it can be done in one step - or we may need more than one step. Again that is something that we have to discuss."

Sources say that members so far have a range of views on how to approach the upcoming discussions. Some, like China, have advocated discussing the easier subjects first, while others, such as Barbados, have warned that going for the low-hanging fruit is unlikely to work a second time around.

"Let's start from something easier while deliberating on how to tackle the tough [issues]," Chinese Ambassador Yu Jianhua told fellow WTO members last week, noting that less than twelve months remain to create the Doha work programme called for in the Bali ministerial declaration.

Whether or not to include new issues in the upcoming discussions, or to stick to the topics currently outlined in the Doha mandate, is another question that is likely to feature prominently in the months ahead, sources say.

Some members, such as the African Group and Least Developed Country Group, repeated earlier concerns last week about bringing in "new issues" when the old ones remain unresolved. Sources familiar with the meeting say that Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and Japan were among those suggesting that new issues be considered.

Canada, for instance, reportedly mentioned the digital economy, investment, and environment and energy as topics for possible discussion. Costa Rica also raised competition policy as another area.

Others, such as the EU and US, also noted that the global trading environment is very different from when the Doha Round talks kicked off in 2001, with both suggesting that updated data be collected in order to better inform the negotiations.

Whichever way that members decide to move forward, many noted the need to steer clear of past traps that had prevented previous Doha efforts from succeeding.

"Following many years of negotiations, we should avoid repeating the mistakes of the past," EU Ambassador to the WTO Angelos Pangratis said. "Defining a realistically doable work programme by the end of the year can be the most important step of our long term effort to restore fully the negotiating function of the WTO."

Bali implementation

Another key question for 2014 will be on how to put the Bali deal into effect, a process that is already beginning to get underway. Meetings have been held in recent weeks on the subject, including a preparatory committee on trade facilitation, and a meeting of the Committee on Agriculture. (See Bridges Weekly, 6 February 2014)

Members in their interventions last week particularly highlighted the importance of putting the trade facilitation deal - the central pillar of the Bali package - into force quickly. Some estimates, such as by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, have placed the potential annual gains from the pact at US$1 trillion once the deal is in place, though other estimates have been more conservative.

To bring the deal into force, two-thirds of the WTO's membership must ratify it; the agreement will then apply to those members.

In the meantime, the committee tasked with administering the agreement will have to undertake a legal review of the pact; prepare a protocol of amendment to include it in the overall WTO Agreement; and begin receiving notifications of Category A commitments, which are those that members will implement as soon as the Trade Facilitation Agreement enters into force.

Providing the necessary support for developing countries to implement their trade facilitation commitments is another key area, as is determining what specific needs those countries have. Donor members and organisations have already met with the WTO Director-General on the subject.

ICTSD reporting.

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