Farm Trade: WTO Members Spar over Doha Direction

3 April 2014

WTO members clashed on Friday over whether draft Doha texts tabled six years ago should remain the basis for future talks on farm trade, ahead of a December deadline for agreeing on a work programme to resolve the outstanding issues in the round.

Developing countries said the 2008 texts should still be the starting point for any new deal at the global trade body. (See Bridges Weekly, 10 December 2008) However, the US argued for a fresh start.

The chair of the farm trade talks, New Zealand ambassador John Adank, warned members that a "sterile" debate over the status of the drafts could stymie progress towards agreement on a work programme on the unresolved issues of the Doha round, which is now in its thirteenth year.

During their meeting in Bali, Indonesia last December, WTO ministers gave trade officials twelve months to agree on how best to tackle these remaining Doha questions - agriculture and otherwise. (See Bridges Daily Update, 7 December 2013)

In the months since, preliminary consultations have indicated that any Doha work programme will need to address the three toughest areas of the talks - agriculture, non-agricultural market access, and services. Some members have said that what is achieved in agriculture will determine the level of ambition of the rest of the Round. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 March 2014)

But sources told Bridges that the farm trade talks last week had gotten off to a fairly slow start, in what was the first full meeting of the agriculture negotiating group this year.

"I wouldn't say there was a meeting of minds," one negotiator observed drily.

"Theological" debate

Some members echoed the chair's fear that talks could easily become bogged down in a fruitless discussion of whether the draft texts from 2008 should form the basis of a future deal.

Although the draft text has not been agreed, negotiators also need to recognise that it "reflects extensive discussions and negotiations," one country from the Cairns Group of farm exporters argued.

The EU similarly cautioned against "theological debates" over the status of the draft texts - dubbed "Rev.4" by trade negotiators due to the WTO document symbol used to refer to it.

In contrast, the US argued against basing further talks on the texts, and called instead for countries to focus first on updating the data they need to discuss trade policies and possible new concessions.

Washington wants to ensure that countries have access to current information in areas such as farm subsidy spending before talks begin, trade sources say. Although WTO rules require this information to be made reported on a regular basis to its committee on agriculture, a number of trading powers are several years behind in doing so.

Sequencing work?

The G-20 developing country group, which favours trade policy reform in the developed world - not to be confused with the G-20 coalition of major industrialised economies - argued against "sequencing" aspects of the work, in what appeared to be a direct rebuttal of the US position.

"We believe that the discussions on the implementation of the Bali results, on new information gathering exercises, and on the Work Program should happen concomitantly," the group argued, according to a copy of their statement seen by Bridges.

The G-20 includes Brazil, China, and India, as well as a number of farm exporting countries from Latin America.

One developed country negotiator questioned whether large countries like the US really needed help obtaining data on trade before engaging in talks.

"They're not the country with capacity constraints," the source said, who contrasted the ability of large delegations to analyse trade policies and flows with that of smaller members, which may face difficulties accessing information.

Another developing country coalition, the G-33, argued that eighty percent of the draft text was already "stabilised" - language that was agreed, subject to an overall deal. The group includes countries with large populations of small farmers, including major trading powers such as China, India, and Indonesia as well as smaller nations such as Barbados and Jamaica.

Talks now should focus on addressing ten outstanding issues that were identified in a report from a previous chair of the negotiating committee in April 2011, the G-33 said. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 April 2011).

Three questions

Members mostly said they would postpone answering three questions posed by the chair while they consulted with capitals and other members on how best to proceed.

Adank had called on members to clarify what they saw as "desirable and doable" in the farm trade talks; what contributions they and others therefore need to make; and what new information would be needed in order to update earlier discussions.

While the G-10 group of countries with protected farm sectors provided brief responses to the chair's questions, the G-20 and G-33 both said they would reflect and get back to the chair at a later time. The Cairns Group of farm exporting countries appeared to be the only negotiating coalition to have provided a detailed response to the chair.

Preferential trade deals

Some sources suggested that major trading powers may be more focused on preferential trade deals being negotiated outside the WTO system - meaning negotiators were less than fully engaged in pushing for a rapid outcome on the Doha talks.

While the US and EU are currently negotiating a trans-Atlantic free trade deal, another set of countries including the US and Japan are trying to negotiate a trans-Pacific accord. Other negotiations are also proceeding in parallel with the Doha talks at the WTO.

One negotiator bemoaned the lack of clear options being put forward in the negotiations. Countries that rejected the latest draft Doha text have yet to "come out clearly with an alternative," the source said.

The chair closed the meeting by urging members to intensify talks amongst each other, trade delegates said, but without setting out a detailed roadmap or timeline for the next steps in the consultations.

Sources say that the next meeting of the WTO's Trade Negotiations Committee, slated for 7 April, might provide more clarity on how the talks will now proceed.

ICTSD reporting.

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