Political Paralysis Poisons WTO Agriculture Talks

7 July 2010

Paralysis at the political level continues to stymie attempts to move forward in the WTO Doha talks on farm trade, sources said this week, after a meeting on the controversial "special safeguard mechanism" for developing countries produced no further progress.

"We agreed that we're not going anywhere" said one delegate familiar with the small-group discussion that took place on Tuesday. Others reported that the debate remains polarised between G33 members, which favour a more flexible safeguard so that developing countries can defend producers from import surges and price depressions, and developed and developing exporting countries, which favour tighter restrictions.

The unproductive exchange was a symptom of the broader political deadlock over Doha, sources said, with one negotiator mentioning the lukewarm endorsement of the trade talks at the recent G20 summit in Toronto.

The US has repeatedly argued that larger developing countries such as Brazil, China and India need to provide more access to their markets if a Doha deal is to be reached. At this point - nearly nine years into the trade round - both industrial goods and agricultural products remain critical sources of contention. However, these countries have resisted lowering tariffs and providing other commitments in the absence of further concessions from the US.

According to some delegates, the US has held bilateral talks with emerging economies to discuss their demands, although those meetings have not led to any meaningful breakthroughs in the talks. One delegate warned that progress was unlikely as long as the US remains reluctant to engage with other countries on the basis of the latest draft negotiating text tabled by the chair of the farm talks at the WTO.

Data: G20 warning

In the absence of progress on the outstanding negotiating issues in the Doha Round, the chair of the agriculture negotiations has focused negotiators' attention on the data that members will need to provide when scheduling their commitments when the farm trade talks eventually reach a conclusion. However, at a meeting on Tuesday, the WTO's G20 developing country group (not to be confused with the G20 world economic powers) warned against politicising what they said should be an essentially technical process.

Discussions on data, and the templates in which this data should be provided, should remain "a politically neutral exercise," the group emphasised, according to an informal submission seen by Bridges. The group also stressed that "the primary objective of the Agriculture negotiations is to complete the current Draft Modalities in Agriculture," in a reference to the latest draft text for a Doha deal, and warned that "template formats can only be finally completed when the ongoing substantive work on modalities is concluded."

The group proposed that a distinction be made between those elements of the talks in which the structure of the negotiations can be separated from its substance, and others in which it could not, because the "level of ambition" would be affected by whatever members agreed. A number of WTO members reportedly disagreed with the distinction drawn by the G20, including the EU and the G10 group of countries with highly protected farm sectors.

Senior officials discuss process

Senior officials and ambassadors were due to meet on Wednesday and Thursday this week to discuss how the Doha talks should now move ahead, trade sources said. The cross-regional group of some two dozen countries first met at the end of May, without taking any major decisions on next steps. The meeting was again due to be hosted by the EU and India, with a slightly expanded group of countries from the original gathering.

The chair of the agriculture negotiations, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, was also due to convene informal talks on tariff simplification on Thursday afternoon, to be followed by a "transparency" meeting open to all members the following day. Negotiators suggested that the consultations this week were likely to be the last informal agriculture discussions to be held at the WTO before the organisation closes for its traditional summer break over August.

ICTSD reporting.

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