Kenyan Ambassador Will Chair WTO Farm Trade Talks, Governments Agree

19 April 2017

Governments agreed on Friday 7 April that the Kenyan Ambassador to the WTO, Stephen Karau, will chair negotiations on agricultural trade issues at the Geneva-based organisation, breaking months of deadlock over who should take on the role.

Karau was confirmed alongside other trade officials taking up a slate of positions at the WTO during a meeting of the organisation’s General Council. However, the agriculture role has widely been seen as critical to progress elsewhere at the WTO, in part because many countries see the issue as a central topic in the negotiations.

Other sources noted the complexity of talks on agriculture, as well as their tendency to be dogged by frequent controversy.

Negotiating hiatus ends

The decision brings to a close an extended hiatus in the negotiations which began when the former chair, New Zealand Ambassador Vangelis Vitalis, returned to Wellington in January.

Since then, the Latin American group at the WTO has reportedly been at loggerheads with the Asian group over proposed candidates, with consensus seemingly elusive until the Kenyan ambassador was confirmed last week.

“You get a sense we’ve had our foot off the accelerator,” said one official who regretted the relative lack of negotiating activity since the year began.

While trade officials have continued conducting technical work and meeting with one another on their own initiative, sources said that there had been a lull in the talks since a spate of activity at the end of last year. At that stage, many governments had indicated a strong interest in seeing an outcome on domestic agricultural support by the end of 2017. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 February 2017 and 24 November 2016)

Negotiators told Bridges that they hope progress can now be made on farm trade issues ahead of the organisation’s eleventh ministerial conference, which is due to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 11-14 December.

Other areas that are being discussed as possible areas for negotiating outcomes at the Buenos Aires meeting include disciplining the use of harmful fisheries subsidies, as well as potentially adopting rules on domestic regulation and trade facilitation in services. E-commerce is another area that has seen interest from some of the membership for ministerial outcomes.

US stance still uncertain

However, other sources cautioned that underlying questions on the substance of the talks remain.

“Changing the chair doesn’t change everything,” said one official, who also noted that it was unclear how the new US administration was planning to approach agricultural trade issues at the WTO.

The US Senate has yet to confirm the nominee for the role of US Trade Representative, leading to continued uncertainty over Washington’s likely approach. US President Donald Trump has nominated Robert Lighthizer, an international trade lawyer, to serve in the post. The position of US ambassador to the WTO also remains vacant. (See Bridges Weekly, 16 March 2017)

In the meantime, other major economies have been reluctant to signal any change in their own negotiating stance, sources said.

“Most members haven’t changed their position,” one official observed.

Upcoming meetings

The new chair is set to restart the consultation process with WTO members after the organisation’s brief spring hiatus this weekend, with a meeting of the Committee on Agriculture’s Special Session scheduled for Wednesday 26 April.

Meanwhile, others noted that a planned mini-ministerial meeting in early June in Paris, France, could also provide further impetus and direction to the talks going forward. The mini-ministerial coincides with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) Forum and Ministerial Council Meeting, both held annually.

ICTSD reporting.

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