WTO’s Azevêdo Warns of Slow Progress in Doha Talks as July Deadline Approaches

4 June 2015

Talks aimed at crafting a work programme for resolving the outstanding areas of the WTO’s Doha Round are still not reaching the “necessary convergence” in order to meet an end-July deadline, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo warned the global trade body’s members this week.

“We are still seeing good engagement — and this is positive. We have been having detailed conversations across a range of issues, and in some areas we are seeing progress,” the WTO chief told heads of delegation at an informal meeting convened on Monday at the organisation’s Geneva headquarters.

“However, on the basis of the discussions I have had over recent weeks, I am becoming increasingly concerned that we are not making the progress that is needed in the key areas of agriculture, industrial products, and services,” he said, referring to the topics that are widely held as core issues in the Doha talks.

In an effort to speed up the difficult negotiations, Azevêdo has pledged to hold meetings of the organisation’s full membership over the weeks ahead, citing the importance of such discussions for making the “necessary political calls” in the future.

As those talks continue, trade watchers will also be focusing on some upcoming ministerial-level meetings, including one in Paris on 4 June, to see if those talks yield additional clarity at the political level on possible next steps for the Doha Round negotiations.

Eyes on agriculture

Sources familiar with the talks say that differences on agriculture continue to divide delegations in Geneva, and have contributed to slowing the negotiations in other areas.

One of the key rows in the farm trade talks involves domestic agricultural support. The US has argued repeatedly in recent months that large developing countries such as China and India should undertake steeper cuts in their farm subsidy spending than are currently foreseen in the most recent draft text for the WTO’s Doha Round negotiations. Those countries, in turn, have countered that the draft deal from 2008 should still serve as the basis for the talks. (See Bridges Weekly, 23 April 2015)

The Committee on Agriculture, which is the regular body tasked with the implementation of the organisation’s existing farm trade rules, is set to meet today in Geneva. While this committee does not deal with the Doha negotiations, which falls instead under the “Special Session,” one of the topics that will likely be high on the agenda is China’s latest notification of domestic agricultural support, which was submitted to the WTO in early May. The notification has already drawn a series of questions in advance of the meeting, particularly from the US, EU, Japan, and Canada.  (See Bridges Weekly, 13 May 2015)

Another area in the farm trade talks that has proved contentious is the debate over whether to include a special safeguard mechanism (SSM), a tool that would allow developing countries to temporarily lift tariffs in cases of import surges or lower prices. Members have been at odds with whether such a mechanism is necessary in a potentially scaled down Doha deal, sources say.

Sources say that the difficulties seen in the farm trade talks are holding up other negotiating areas, including key topics such as industrial goods. A transparency meeting of the negotiating group for non-agricultural market access (NAMA) that was also held on Monday saw Swiss Ambassador Remigi Winzap, who chairs the talks, report no change in the situation of recent weeks.

Though some suggestions have reportedly been put forward, none have been tabled as concrete new proposals with the exception of the Argentina request-offer paper submitted earlier this year. Some of the ideas that have reportedly been raised so far during the consultations involve variations to the “Swiss formula” from the 2008 NAMA draft text and its coefficients, sources say.

Some members are still reportedly hesitant to fully engage in the NAMA talks until it becomes clearer how the agriculture talks will be treated. The chair, while noting that the level of ambition in agriculture will set that of the industrial goods talks, urged members to keep working and consider new ideas.

“Yes, agriculture has not evolved, but it doesn’t mean that nothing is happening anywhere else. The overall result needs to be balanced,” Winzap said.

OECD meetings

This week will see the annual meeting of trade ministers, held on the sidelines of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation’s (OECD) ministerial in Paris, France, which some sources say could provide additional clarity on the situation.

The Paris event is a staple of the international trade calendar, partly given its potential to give political signals for the Doha talks. This year’s meeting is being co-chaired by Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb and Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Amina Mohamed, who will also be chairing the upcoming WTO ministerial conference in Nairobi this December.

A 23-24 May meeting of trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries in the Philippines saw the officials voice their support for the work programme discussions, welcoming the effort to agree such a plan by end-July “as a key stepping-stone to promptly concluding the Doha Round.”

“We strongly commit to prioritise and contribute positively to the formulation of a clearly defined work programme,” they added, while also pledging that all 21 APEC economies will have submitted their instruments of acceptance of the Trade Facilitation Agreement by the WTO’s December ministerial conference, and urging the rest of the global trade body’s membership to do the same.

ICTSD reporting.

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