WTO Conference Chair Malcorra Urges Members to Prepare for Post-Buenos Aires Work

26 October 2017

Susana Malcorra, the Argentine minister who will chair the WTO’s upcoming ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, told negotiators in Geneva last week that fisheries subsidies and agriculture remain high on the agenda for the December meeting, while reminding them that issues that do not yield concrete deliverables at the event should still be addressed by countries afterward.

“There is life after Buenos Aires,” she told a meeting of ambassadors and other officials at WTO headquarters on 19October, at which she reported back on the mini-ministerial gathering held in Marrakesh, Morocco ten days earlier. (See Bridges Weekly, 12 October 2017)

Malcorra told delegates that a combination of results at the ministerial conference and a process for dealing with outstanding questions could allow “almost everything” to be dealt with by ministers.

While suggesting that members were most likely to be able to reach agreement on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies at Buenos Aires, Malcorra said agricultural issues are also high on the conference agenda. She identified public food stockholding, trade-distorting farm subsidies, and cotton as three key topics in those negotiations.

Malcorra also noted ministerial-level discussions in Marrakech on e-commerce, services, small and medium-sized enterprises, and women’s economic empowerment, reflecting ongoing discussions in Geneva and elsewhere among WTO members and member groups.

Her comments were reaffirmed by WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo this week, when he addressed heads of delegation at a meeting in Geneva on 24 October.

Azevêdo cautioned that while some negotiating advances have been made, gaps remain significant in many areas, calling upon members to be “mindful” of the state of play.

“Given this situation, I think that members will soon have to decide which issues can be brought forward, for ministers’ consideration at the Conference – and which issues are not advancing fast enough to be resolved by that time,” he said, calling on members to show both “flexibility and pragmatism.”

Agriculture: Move to text-based talks

Trade sources told Bridges that negotiators have lately called for talks on agriculture to move into a text-based phase, following a spate of new proposals at the global trade body. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 October 2017)

Delegates argued in favour of the new approach at an informal agriculture negotiating session convened at the end of last week by the chair of the WTO farm trade talks, Kenyan ambassador Stephen Karau. At the meeting, which was open to all members, the chair also reported back to members on the results of his consultations to date.

Text-based talks are already gearing up in the separate negotiating area of fisheries subsidies, following the recent release of a 13-page informal document based on the proposals tabled so far. Negotiators working on this issue are due to meet again next week. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 October 2017)

Trade sources said that Karau is now set to convene a series of intensive small-group meetings with key countries in a bid to identify areas of consensus and continuing disagreement in the agriculture talks.

“We do not have the luxury of time to discuss possible outcomes that remain elusive. We must concentrate our discussions on outcomes that can realistically be achieved,” Karau told members last week, according to a copy of his remarks seen by Bridges.

Agriculture positions still entrenched

Positions nonetheless remained far apart on key topics such as agricultural domestic support and public stockholding, sources said.

New negotiating proposals from the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) group and the C-4 group of West African cotton-producing countries have amplified earlier calls from China and India for developed countries to end their existing WTO entitlements to trade-distorting “amber box” subsidies, while preserving flexibilities for developing countries to provide similar types of support to their own farm sectors. (See Bridges Weekly, 19 October 2017 and 20 July 2017)

Those developed countries which maintain highly subsidised and protected farm sectors have said these calls are unrealistic. The G-10 group, which includes Japan, Norway, and Switzerland, have said that any new cuts or ceilings must account for their existing policy frameworks.

At the same time, agricultural trading giants such as the US have emphasised that growing levels of trade-distorting support in large developing countries such as China and India mean that Beijing and New Delhi should also agree to lower ceilings as part of any eventual deal.

A July proposal from the EU, Brazil, and three other Latin American countries sought to link proposals on farm subsidy cuts with a separate but related question concerning how WTO rules on agriculture affect developing countries’ ability to buy food at subsidised prices, as part of their public stockholding programmes for food security. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2017)

However, sources told Bridges that China and India see little benefit in the approach being favoured by the EU and Brazil, and also object to the negotiating linkage being made between farm subsidy rules and public stockholding.

Farm exporting countries suggest alternative approach

A new submission last week from New Zealand, Australia, and other competitive agricultural exporting countries sought to break the deadlock by putting forward a new approach based on limits to trade-distorting support that are based on a fixed monetary value, instead of floating limits based on the value of agricultural production, favoured by the co-sponsors of the EU-Brazil proposal.

One delegate from the G-33 group of countries with large populations of smallholder farmers told Bridges that the New Zealand paper represents a “middle way” in the negotiations.

Sources also told Bridges that the US welcomed the submission as a potential contribution to negotiations on agricultural domestic support after Buenos Aires. The US has previously said that it is “sceptical” of seeing major negotiated outcomes at the ministerial.

The new approach was reportedly also welcomed by countries from the G-10 group, which acknowledged the exporting countries’ efforts to find ways to build consensus in the talks.

Others said that some negotiators favoured how the New Zealand approach offered various options for countries to choose from, instead of imposing a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

However, sources also said that many countries were still evaluating the proposal and had only been able to offer preliminary reactions at the meeting last week.

A trade official familiar with the proposal cautioned that political rather than technical considerations could still hamper progress towards agreement ahead of the ministerial.

Looking beyond Buenos Aires

One trade source said that negotiations on agricultural market access issues were now likely to be addressed only after the Buenos Aires ministerial conference. Although Paraguay and Peru have put forward proposals in this area, many other countries have been reluctant to engage on the subject. (See Bridges Weekly, 8 June 2017)

Similarly, several sources told Bridges that dedicated talks on a special safeguard mechanism for developing countries may need to continue after Buenos Aires.

The G-33 coalition has argued in favour of allowing developing countries to apply an additional safeguard duty on agricultural goods as a temporary measure to protect domestic producers from sudden import surges or price depressions, but agricultural exporters have consistently linked to the issue to the question of improvements in market access.

WTO members might also agree to address proposals to improve transparency on the use of agricultural export restrictions, and to refrain from applying these measures to humanitarian food aid purchases, sources said. Singapore has advanced a proposal in this area, although negotiators told Bridges that progress here would more likely be part of a broader package. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 July 2017)

Negotiations were still continuing over the extent to which members would be able to address concerns around agricultural domestic support and the separate but related topic of public stockholding, sources told Bridges. Issues that could not be resolved by the time of the ministerial would need to be addressed as part of a future work programme.

Along with the limited time remaining between now and Buenos Aires – as well as the significant technical and political work remaining in other negotiating areas – another looming challenge is the continued impasse in addressing Appellate Body vacancies, which Geneva trade officials confirmed this week is still ongoing.

Various WTO members have repeatedly raised concerns over the US move to block the start of selection processes to fill these seats, including at a meeting earlier this week of the organisation’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), with some reportedly warning that this issue could become a worrisome distraction from the negotiations in Buenos Aires.

Along with continued meetings of the various negotiating groups, another key meeting on the agenda is that of the WTO’s General Council, the highest-level meeting outside the ministerial conference, which is set to convene on 26 October.

ICTSD reporting.

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