WTO Post-Nairobi Agenda Looms Over G-20 Trade Ministers' Meeting

8 October 2015

Despite emerging consensus over a small package of measures for the WTO’s Nairobi ministerial conference this December, the organisation’s head has told trade ministers that its members disagree over how to handle unresolved negotiations on other issues in the long-running Doha Round of talks.

Roberto Azevêdo, the WTO Director-General, told ministers from the G-20 group of major economies in Istanbul this Tuesday that “there are divergent views on what happens after Nairobi.”

While some countries consider that the Doha Round will simply continue unless there is consensus to end it, others say that, if the deal cannot be concluded by December, the talks “will be over for all practical purposes.”

“That’s where we’ve hit a major hurdle,” one source who had participated in the Istanbul meetings told Bridges.

Azevêdo told ministers that there nonetheless seemed to be consensus that “whatever package we deliver in Nairobi, it will not be viable, or credible, to announce it as the conclusion of the [Doha Round] single undertaking.”

Nairobi package taking shape

The Director-General identified three issues as the most likely ingredients in an eventual Nairobi deal: export competition, a package of development and least developed country (LDC) issues, and some provisions on transparency.

Other Doha issues were proving difficult, he said, such as the “core” question of agricultural domestic support, agricultural and non-agricultural market access issues, and trade in services.

Azevêdo acknowledged that some members were unwilling to give up on the possibility of achieving progress on these broader issues, but said he was “not terribly optimistic” about the prospects of progress.

Trade sources told Bridges that they thought the recent deal on a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was likely to change the dynamics of the WTO talks. (For more on the TPP, see related story, this edition)

“The US is in a very comfortable position now,” one delegate said. “Whatever happens in Nairobi, they will say they can’t negotiate on the Doha basis any more.”

US negotiators have repeatedly said that they do not see draft Doha texts tabled in 2008 as a viable basis for a deal.

Ministerial declaration in doubt

Azevêdo also told G-20 ministers that there are different views on what sort of document could emerge from the Nairobi ministerial.

While some members wanted the gathering to issue a formal declaration, others favoured a non-consensual “Chairperson’s statement.” A third option would be some kind of hybrid between the two.

One source told Bridges that the US would prefer the option of a chair’s statement, but that others felt that those issues on which there was agreement should be set out in a formal declaration.

Another negotiator said that these issues were unlikely to be settled until the last minute at Nairobi, even though ambassadors were discussing them now.

End of the “one-size-fits-all” approach

Azevêdo also told the G-20 that members had to think differently about how to address the needs of poorer countries when negotiating trade deals.

Multilateral deals have to build in flexibilities that allow members to take on obligations at “an appropriate pace,” he said.

The US in particular has repeatedly argued that providing an equal degree of “special and differential treatment” to all developing countries in the Doha talks would fail to recognise changes in the global economy in recent years, and in particular the rise of “emerging” economies such as China and India.

The Director-General told ministers that initiatives by groups of members could be a successful alternative if countries wanted “to be more ambitious and rigid in terms of the disciplines.”

Time to start drafting?

Azevêdo told ministers that he had last week started “exploring the idea of beginning the process of drafting” an outcome document for Nairobi.

He told the G-20 ministers that doing so would not prejudice either the substance or format of the process, and asked for their guidance on whether to proceed on the basis of the specific issues he had identified as being most likely to form the basis of a small package for the ministerial.

“Whatever issues you’ve identified, start working on them: there’s no time,” said one trade official who was familiar with the talks in Istanbul.

The source told Bridges that members might still discover they disagree over technical details even in the areas that Azevêdo had highlighted.

Another said that this Thursday’s General Council meeting might provide greater clarity on how negotiators could move forward.

ICTSD reporting.

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