WTO Ag Negotiators Begin Charting Post-Bali Course
Two months after the WTO's ninth ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia, talks on the organisation's farm trade agenda remain shrouded in uncertainty, officials say. Key questions, negotiators told Bridges, include which issues the membership should tackle next, and what is the best approach to take.
A meeting last Wednesday of the "regular" Committee on Agriculture - the body tasked with monitoring WTO members' commitments under current rules - reportedly led to some progress in setting out how the Bali agreements on farm trade should be implemented.
But members remain unclear over how separate talks on the future of the Doha Round will proceed, trade sources said. These are normally held in "special sessions" of the committee, convened by the chair, New Zealand Ambassador John Adank.
"The political environment remains very sketchy," one trade source acknowledged.
As part of a decision on public stockholding for food security purposes, WTO members agreed in Bali to establish a work programme in the Committee on Agriculture to pursue "this issue," with the aim of making recommendations for a permanent solution.
Led by India, the G-33 coalition had called for more flexibility for developing countries to be able to purchase food for public stockholding at "administered prices" set by the government. The group argued that price inflation in the two decades since WTO subsidy ceilings were agreed had effectively eroded their ability to provide schemes of this sort.
In Bali, WTO members agreed that they would refrain from challenging these programmes, so long as certain conditions were met. The conditions include reporting its farm subsidy programmes to the WTO, and notifying the Committee on Agriculture if the country is exceeding - or risks exceeding - current limits on farm support spending.
However, no country has yet provided the additional information required to the committee, sources said. The committee has also yet to begin discussing what a "permanent solution" in this area might look like.
Some members questioned whether this work should take place in the regular session of the committee, or instead in the "special session."
Export subsidies and similar measures, grouped together at the WTO under the heading of "export competition," are slated to be the focus of the committee's third meeting this year, in June.
WTO delegates told Bridges that the secretariat is due to compile a report, drawn from the results of a questionnaire being sent to all members. An annex to the Bali declaration on export competition provides the basis for this questionnaire, sources said.
At the December ministerial, members agreed that they would prioritise work on those issues on which legally binding outcomes could not be achieved - such as export competition.
Tariff quota administration
The third area of the Bali package on agriculture - tariff rate quota administration - does not require any immediate action by the Committee on Agriculture, sources said.
The agreement reached by ministers would allow members to start monitoring import quotas in the committee if these are consistently underfilled.
However, the body does not have a specific role to play, beyond its normal work, until a country raises a concern about a particular tariff quota and asks the committee to look into this further.
Trade sources told Bridges that the fate of the broader Doha Round is also preoccupying delegates - and could even have an impact on how negotiators engage on implementation of the Bali package.
"We started to see people put down their markers [on this] last week," one delegate said.
In Bali, ministers gave the Trade Negotiations Committee twelve months to prepare "a clearly defined work programme" on the remaining Doha issues.
However, negotiators acknowledged that there was still a lack of clarity over whether members would continue to seek agreements on "small packages" of the Doha agenda that seem politically more manageable, or seek agreement on a more comprehensive deal.
The Bali package itself was intended to be a down-payment or "early harvest" of progress that had been achieved to date.
Signal from Davos
A subset of WTO ministers who met last month at the Swiss mountain resort of Davos agreed that the trade body needed to return to negotiations on the "core" issues of agriculture, industrial goods, and services. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 January 2014)
One source told Bridges that they understood the US to be only interested in negotiating agricultural market access, and was only willing to address domestic support if industrial goods and services were also on the table.
However, others said that the Cairns Group of competitive agricultural exporters, which includes both developed and developing countries, is currently preparing papers on all three core elements of the agricultural part of the Doha talks - domestic support, market access, and export competition.
Trade Negotiations Committee: informal meeting
Negotiators said that they expected a clearer sense of direction to emerge after the informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee, which was currently underway as Bridges went to press on Thursday.
Some also suggested that the speed of implementation of the Bali package could depend in part on progress in separate talks aimed at operationalising the agreement on "trade facilitation" that was also struck at the ministerial conference.
Negotiators have a July deadline for completing work in this area, sources said. A meeting of the Preparatory Committee on Trade Facilitation was held last Friday, with members naming Philippine Ambassador Esteban Conejos, Jr., as chairperson. Conejos has pledged to start consultations with members on the subject this week.