"Rapid acceleration" needed to ensure results at WTO Ministerial, Lamy Warns

15 May 2013

WTO members have spent the past several months working to extract an abridged package of deliverables from the overall Doha Round of trade talks, which were formally declared at an impasse in December 2011. The proposed "mini-package" would, if completed, include an agreement on trade facilitation, along with agriculture-related components and a few deliverables of relevance to developing and least developed countries.

However, speaking to members at the 11 April meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) - which is tasked with the Doha Round talks - the Director-General noted that the current preparations for the December gathering in the tropical Indonesian island are not moving quickly enough.

"Assuming my diagnosis is right, the stark reality is that the current pace of work is largely insufficient to deliver successfully in Bali," Lamy said. "This means that without rapid acceleration and real negotiations, it is highly probable that you will not see the deliverables you desire in Bali."

However, he cautioned against members assigning blame to one another for the slow movement in the talks, stressing that such an attitude would be counterproductive.

Developing country, LDC issues

The third "pillar" of a Bali package would include provisions of relevance to developing and least developed countries (LDCs). Those discussions have primarily centred on three clusters of topics: a Monitoring Mechanism, the 28 proposals from the WTO's 2003 Ministerial Conference in Cancún, and six Agreement-specific proposals involving special and differential treatment (S&DT).

The 28 Cancún proposals were part of a group of 88 proposals aimed at strengthening the S&DT provisions in various WTO agreements. These 28 were agreed in principle ahead of the WTO's 2003 ministerial conference in Cancún; however, they were ultimately not harvested.

While sources say that discussions regarding six of these proposals are making progress, disagreements have arisen over whether the other 22 proposals should be agreed "as is" - in other words, using the existing language from Cancún - or modified in some respect.

Meanwhile, the so-called Monitoring Mechanism under discussion would, if agreed, review the functioning of provisions in WTO rules for special and differential treatment in favour of developing countries. Negotiations on the proposed mechanism date back over ten years; however, disagreements remain over the mandate of such a scheme.

Meetings on the six Agreement-specific proposals - which deal with the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) Agreement and Import Licensing Agreement - have also continued in recent weeks.

The prospects for those issues that affect the poorest WTO members are still unclear, sources say, with members still awaiting proposals from the LDC Group on topics such as duty-free quota-free market access, rules of origin, and cotton. Ambassador Steffen Smidt of Denmark has been appointed by Lamy to serve as a facilitator for the LDC component of the Bali package.

How to operationalise the LDC services waiver agreed at the last ministerial in 2011 is another topic that remains undecided, sources say. Members are also examining a possible extension to LDCs' waiver for implementing the WTO's intellectual property agreement, given that the current waiver expires this July.

Trade facilitation

An agreement on trade facilitation, which deals with easing customs procedures and cutting time at border crossings, would be the centrepiece of any package agreed for the December ministerial. Negotiators are currently working to eliminate the remaining brackets in the current text of such an agreement, which is now on its 15th draft.

Lamy urged members on April 11 to consult with their capitals and ensure that coordination occur among all relevant ministries - not just those that deal with trade - in order to ensure the negotiations succeed.

In March, the chair of the trade facilitation talks established a so-called "Friends of the Chair" process to complement the facilitator-led discussions that have been conducted to date, after finding that efforts to whittle down the 600-plus remaining brackets in the draft agreement were moving too slowly. This new process is already underway, with the four "Friends of the Chair" - Michael Stone of Hong Kong, Ambassador Mario Matus of Chile, Ambassador Remigi Winzap of Switzerland, and Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria - reporting to an informal meeting of the trade facilitation group on Monday on their recent efforts in this area.

Agriculture

Meanwhile, the process to determine which components of the WTO's farm trade talks should make it into the final Bali package has also faced its own hurdles, Lamy noted - a sentiment that various delegates speaking to Bridges shared.

The items currently being discussed as possible agriculture deliverables include a proposal from the G-20 coalition of developing countries regarding how countries manage tariff rates quotas, or TRQs - which are used by some countries to charge higher tariffs on goods being imported after an initial quota has been filled. Consultations on the G-20 proposal "have highlighted that members continue to see this as a useful one to explore for possible decision in Bali, even though there are sensitivities in relation to some aspects of the proposal that members have not yet settled," the Director-General reported during the meeting.

However, Lamy noted, "significant divergences" remain around another agriculture proposal on the table that has been raised by the G-33 coalition of developing countries. The G-33 proposal would ease farm subsidy rules on food stockholding purchases - a suggestion that many developed countries have warned could create dangerous loopholes in WTO rules.

Specifically, some have said the plan would effectively permit members to include unlimited amounts of market price support in the WTO's "green box" - which is reserved for subsidies that cause no more than minimal trade distortion - and have asked instead whether the existing disciplines would allow members to achieve their food security objectives.

Failure at Bali could spell doom for Doha, some members warn

Various members - including the US, Japan, Norway, and China, among others - stressed that a failure to conclude a package in time for Bali could have broader implications for the overall Doha negotiations, and the credibility of the multilateral trading system as a whole.

The next TNC meeting will then be held on 31 May.

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