New Chair of WTO Agriculture Negotiations Restarts Talks

27 April 2017

Kenyan Ambassador Stephen Karau told WTO members on Wednesday 26 April that he would seek to pick up talks on agricultural trade from where they had left off, in the first negotiating session he convened as the new chair on the topic.

WTO members agreed on 7 April that Karau would take over the role from New Zealand ambassador Vangelis Vitalis, who has returned to Wellington. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 April 2017)

"I am humbled by the confidence shown in me by the members and would like to assure you that I will carry out my tasks with determination and dedication," Karau told the meeting.

He also underscored the need for countries to intensify engagement immediately to lay the necessary groundwork for the upcoming ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this December.

"I know that there is no time to waste with the Buenos Aires ministerial meeting just around the corner," he said.

WTO members had previously been discussing options for potentially disciplining domestic agricultural support, with the prior chair reporting that the vast bulk of the organisation’s membership is interested in seeing such a deal at this year’s eleventh ministerial conference. (See Bridges Weekly, 24 November 2016)

Karau was among the negotiating group chairs who met with WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo and Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra earlier this week to discuss the ministerial preparations, given Argentina’s role as conference host. (For more on Malcorra’s visit to Geneva, see related story, this edition)

Consultations to begin at once

Sources familiar with the meeting told Bridges that Karau pledged to begin consultations immediately, with a view to convening an informal meeting open to all WTO members in mid-May.

Meanwhile, a meeting of the WTO’s General Council is planned for 10-11 May. The General Council is the organisation’s highest level of meetings outside of the ministerial setting.

The timeframe would allow the new chair to conduct an initial round of consultations ahead of a mini-ministerial meeting in Paris, which is scheduled for 8 June on the margins of an annual high-level event at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), one source said.

Another trade official said that Karau also encouraged negotiators to continue engaging directly with one another, underlining that his own role in the talks would be to serve as an impartial facilitator.

"I know that trust is absolutely essential in my new role as chair and I commit to working fairly, objectively, and transparently with all delegations,” he told members.

With the chair discouraging delegates from taking the floor to offer congratulations on his appointment, only Benin spoke to emphasise the importance of reforms in the cotton sector. Karau is also due to chair related negotiations in the WTO sub-committee dealing with that commodity.

Building on Nairobi

The chair indicated he would continue to structure the talks along the lines that had been followed by Vitalis in the wake of the WTO’s tenth ministerial conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 2015.

Karau had been among the senior officials whose role as a facilitator was credited for the successful outcome of the conference, which saw ministers strike a deal on a package of items, including on eliminating agricultural export subsidies. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 December 2015)

In addition to facilitating talks on agricultural trade reform, the new chair clarified that he would continue to hold dedicated sessions on a proposed new “special safeguard mechanism” which developing countries would be able to use to address sudden import surges or price depressions.

He also referred to plans for hosting dedicated sessions on the question of public food stockholding, where some developing countries have argued that current farm subsidy rules unfairly prevent them from pursuing their domestic food security objectives.

In Nairobi, members reaffirmed an earlier agreement from November 2014 to establish a “permanent solution” to the problems countries face in this area, with the goal of doing so by the eleventh ministerial conference. Should this deadline not be met, the November 2014 agreement among members says that they will  refrain from challenging these public stockholding schemes under the organisation’s dispute settlement system.

This standstill – known in trade circles as a “peace clause” – would then continue until a permanent solution is reached. It does not specify an alternative date, leaving it effectively open-ended. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 November 2014)

A new negotiating submission from the G-33 group of developing countries, which includes China, India, and various other countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, called for a “comprehensive and development-oriented outcome” in the talks, including progress in these areas.

The group’s paper argued that flexibilities for developed countries in the existing WTO rules “make their farmers and exporters artificially competitive,” and singled out a number of policy instruments which the group said were responsible for doing so.

ICTSD reporting.

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