Davos Ministers' Meeting Issues Familiar Call

3 February 2010

A group of trade ministers from the world's major economies met in Davos, Switzerland on Saturday to discuss strategies and assess the politics of concluding the WTO's long-running Doha Round of trade talks. The ministers, who were joined by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, generated no major surprises at their gathering on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting.

Each January for the past several years, trade ministers have gathered in the Swiss ski resort to assess progress in the Doha talks; each January, they have emerged from their session stressing the importance of the round and promising renewed engagement in the negotiations. This time was no different.

Over the years, the ministers' ritualistic incantations for a Doha deal have produced little, if any, movement in the talks themselves. On this, too, many argue that 2010 promises more of the same. But the ministers are not ready to give up the battle to bring the troubled round to a successful conclusion.

"The opening-up of markets is the best countries can do to fight the crisis, to better stabilise their budgets and to contribute to the recovery of the global economy," the Swiss government, the host of the meeting, said in a statement on Saturday. "This in turn will induce overall job creation," the statement added, echoing comments made last week by US President Barack Obama (see related story, this issue).

"We remain committed to what is on the table as the basis for entering into the last stage of the [Doha Development Agenda] negotiations. Unravelling the main pillars of the package is not an option if we want to conclude the round," Doris Leuthard, President of the Swiss Confederation, said after the meeting. She noted that the group, which included ministers from 17 countries, "agreed to do the utmost" to fight against any backsliding in the talks.

Upping the political ante, Brazilian minister Celso Amorim suggested that heads of state meet to try to push through a global trade deal. The proposal was reportedly kept on the table.

"Nobody said no, but we all said during the course of the discussion that if that was to happen, what remains to be done - which is a list of 12 to 13 fairly technical questions - will need to be simplified," said Lamy, according to a report from AFP.

The ministers agreed to remain engaged in the negotiations over the next two months, with their sights set on a proposed ‘stocktaking exercise' in Geneva at the end of March. By then, the ministers said they hope that senior officials will have identified "a list of a number of key issues" for them to consider. If the Doha Round is to be concluded this year - a goal that world leaders have called for repeatedly - then that stocktaking meeting will have to produce a major breakthrough in the talks.

Many have blamed a lack of political will in Washington for the slow pace of the negotiations, an accusation that was perhaps further fueled by the fact that the United States' top trade official - US Trade Representative Ron Kirk - did not attend the Davos meeting. Instead, the US was represented by David Shark, Washington's deputy chief of mission in Geneva. China also sent a vice minister instead of commerce minister Chen Deming.

Several ministers remained openly sceptical about Washington's readiness to engage in global trade talks.

"All the indications are that it's an incredibly controversial matter in the US Congress and I don't think they have yet defined a sustainable approach to conclude the round," said South African trade minister Rob Davies, Reuters reported.

But a few key remarks on trade made by US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech last week provided some fodder for the Doha optimists (see related story, this issue).

"Look at President Obama's speech where he talks about the objective of doubling exports. That can't be done unless trade is liberalised," said Australian trade minister Simon Crean, Reuters reported.

ICTSD reporting; "Brazil suggests summit to push for WTO Doha deal," AFP, 31 January 2010;  "Davos - trade ministers gloomy on WTO prospects," REUTERS, 30 January 2010; "S.Africa says US not ready for global trade deal," REUTERS, 29 January 2010.

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