"No Time to Waste," Warns New WTO Farm Talks Chair

9 September 2015

WTO members confirmed on Tuesday the formal appointment of Vangelis Vitalis, New Zealand’s ambassador to the global trade body, as the new chair of the organisation’s agriculture negotiations.

In remarks at the meeting, the new chair told trade officials that he would work “honestly, fairly, objectively, and transparently with all delegations.”

Negotiators have just over three months until the global trade body’s tenth ministerial conference in Nairobi, Kenya – where some members would like to see a conclusion of the long-running Doha Round of trade talks. An attempt to reach a work programme on how to do so ahead of a 31 July deadline ultimately failed to reach a result, leaving the road ahead uncertain. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 July 2015)

Vitalis warned that there was “no time to waste” before the ministerial. However, sources told Bridges that positions among major trading partners continue to remain far apart.

The New Zealand ambassador told members that he had “neither a magic wand nor a magic draft” to address this problem.

Elusive “thalassa, thalassa” moment

Citing the ancient Greek historian Xenophon, Vitalis told the meeting that members were still “some way from the “thalassa, thalassa” moment” – a reference to the time when a battle-weary contingent of soldiers finally arrived at the sea (“thalassa” in Greek) after a long and onerous journey over land.

The new chair nonetheless remained cautiously upbeat about the prospects for further progress. “I do expect us however – working together – to reach the sea in time for Nairobi," he said.

Trade officials in Geneva told Bridges that it may be too soon to offer any assessment of the chances of a breakthrough in the long-running talks.

Senior trade negotiators from seven major trading powers are due to meet in Geneva on 15 and 16 September, after which some hoped the possible contours for Nairobi might become clearer. Trade sources said that officials from Brazil, Canada, China, the EU, India, Japan, and the US were due to meet to discuss possible ways forward on the Doha agenda.

Others hoped that a 5 October meeting in Turkey of trade ministers from the G-20 group of major advanced and emerging economies could also provide further impetus for progress in the talks.

Low ambition lowering further?

Some trade sources told Bridges that a number of major trading partners were seeking to lower the level of overall “ambition” in the talks – either to avoid having to make concessions which would be difficult for domestic constituencies to accept, or because they suspected other WTO members would be in such a situation.

At the same time, officials have repeatedly acknowledged that least developed countries (LDCs) in particular expect that the WTO’s first ministerial conference in sub-Saharan Africa delivers meaningful outcomes on a package of “development” issues.

“No one is contesting this issue,” one trade source said.

Negotiators said the package could include, among others, progress on cotton; on duty-free, quota-free market access; rules of origin; and operationalisation of the LDC services waiver.

“No one wants to go to Kenya and leave behind a dead Doha,” one delegate said, who argued that it was in no one’s interests for the conference to be seen to fail.

Developing countries outside the LDC grouping cautioned that they also expected the Nairobi outcome to achieve progress on issues they saw as relevant to the “development dimension” of the talks.

A stripped-down Doha deal

Several trade sources told Bridges that the US appeared to be pursuing a conclusion of the Round at Nairobi based on a radically stripped-down Doha agenda, with agreement on a package of measures for LDCs accompanied by a deal on export competition in agriculture and some elements around improved transparency. In this scenario, core negotiating areas such as agricultural domestic support and market access could be left aside.

Others suggested that Washington was merely drawing attention to the fact that there was more consensus in the export competition pillar than in other areas of the talks.

In recent months, the US has called for China in particular to make concessions on agricultural domestic support as a precondition for any reciprocal reductions in its own farm subsidy ceiling. (See Bridges Weekly, 25 June 2015)

Beijing has meanwhile emphasised that this issue is a “red line” for them in the talks.

“US messaging will be very important in determining what happens next,” one developed country negotiator observed.

Both developed and developing country negotiators nonetheless told Bridges that they doubted there would be widespread support for any attempt to conclude the Doha Round without addressing core areas such as farm subsidies or agricultural import tariffs.

Use time efficiently

The chair told delegates at this week’s meeting that he was determined to use the existing time available efficiently.

“It was a quick meeting – only five minutes!” one delegate told Bridges afterwards.

Another confirmed that trade officials had respected the chair’s invitation to refrain from delivering speeches welcoming him to his new role at the WTO.

“The welcome I would most appreciate would be your cooperation in a problem-solving spirit,” Vitalis told the meeting. He is expected to now hold a number of informal consultative meetings with delegations in order to begin charting possible ways forward.

ICTSD reporting.

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