EGA participants call for stalled talks to resume

Many of the WTO members negotiating the liberalization of trade in so-called environmental goods have urged resumption of the currently deadlocked talks.

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA: A formal meeting of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment on 20 June heard a number of participants in the stalled negotiations on the plurilateral Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) calling for resumption of the talks, which are aimed at eliminating tariffs on a range of environmental goods.

According to trade officials, in their first public showing since the EGA talks stalled last December, some 11 of the 18 participants (involving some 46 WTO members) in the EGA talks at the WTO spoke at the Committee following an update by Australia, which is chairing the negotiations.

The United States, a participant in the EGA negotiations and which co-chaired the ministerial segment at the last round of talks that broke up in December after failing to agree on a final product list, however, did not speak on this issue at the Committee meeting.

The participants negotiating the EGA are Australia; Canada; China; Costa Rica; the European Union (representing Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom); Hong Kong-China; Iceland; Israel; Japan; Korea; Liechtenstein; New Zealand; Norway; Singapore; Switzerland; Chinese Taipei; Turkey; and the United States.

No consensus

The eighteenth round of negotiations on the EGA took place from 28 November to 2 December last year, with trade ministers and senior officials arriving on 3 December for the ministerial segment to try and conclude a deal by 4 December. They however failed to reach a deal on that day, with negotiators ending the meeting but not setting a date for subsequent talks.

A joint statement issued after the ministerial segment by the co-chairs, the then US Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman and EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, said: “As co-chairs of this weekend’s EGA Ministerial, the United States and the European Union worked with all WTO members involved to achieve the broadest possible consensus through creative solutions to bridge the gaps in the negotiations.

“Many EGA participants engaged constructively and brought new contributions to the table. The Chairs issued documents designed to stabilize the text of the agreement and produced a revised products list that balances priorities and sensitivities. The participants will now return to capitals to consider next steps.”

The joint statement gave no tentative dates or time horizon for further talks.

According to media reports, going into the eighteenth round of negotiations, there had been differences between the EU and China over the issue of bicycles, a sector of offensive interest to China but of defensive interest to the EU.

Other outstanding issues of concern among the various participants included wood pallets and high-tech batteries, media reports had said.

Following the conclusion of the ministerial segment on 4 December, one participant in the EGA talks said that there had been no agreement on the list of products that would serve as the basis for the continuation of the work.

The consultations had taken place on two product lists: the list put forward by the co-chairs of the talks (the US and the EU), which was not accepted by China, and a shorter list by China. Neither had been accepted as consensus for the continuation of the talks, said the participant.

Speaking to journalists after the ministerial segment broke up on 4 December afternoon, EU Trade Commissioner Malmstrom said most countries thought they could live with the co-chairs’ revised list that had been presented earlier in the morning, but “very late in the process” came the Chinese list which “had a different point of departure” and made a lot of changes.

“All delegations had some of their red lines moved in or moved out in a way that it was impossible to deal with in a couple of hours,” she said.

Calls for resumption

At the Committee meeting on 20 June, Andrew Martin of Australia, the chair of the EGA negotiations, said: “EGA ministers gathered in December to see if a consensus agreement on a final EGA product list was within reach. It was unfortunately not possible to meet a final conclusion.”

“EGA members continue to take stock on the way forward for negotiations and call on others to consider joining,” he added.

According to trade officials, many EGA participants then took the floor and called for talks to start up again, with some stressing the need for a swift conclusion.

Japan said that it was “ready and seeking early resumption of negotiations”, while Korea said it hoped “for the early resumption of EGA negotiations.”

New Zealand highlighted the importance of reaching “an ambitious and timely outcome.”

Chinese Taipei said it hoped to see an agreement “as soon as possible”, adding that it stood ready to continue the work.

Hong Kong-China reaffirmed its commitment to working with EGA participants “to achieve a meaningful outcome early.”

Switzerland said it was “ready to come to the negotiating table as soon as possible”. It urged other members to do the same soon.

According to trade officials, others highlighted their commitment to continuing the negotiations on the EGA.

The EU said it remained committed to concluding an ambitious and forward-looking EGA. “The EU is committed to relaunching negotiations once circumstances allow us to do so and participants are ready for engaging,” it said.

Norway in turn said that it “stands ready to engage in negotiations.”

Citing the benefits of delivering on the EGA, Canada encouraged “renewed engagement from participants going forward.”

Singapore and Turkey also expressed their support for the resumption of the EGA talks.

China said: “Common but differential responsibility is a core principle in the climate change talks and should be reflected in the outcome of the EGA negotiations.” It affirmed that the EGA was important and could be a way for the WTO to contribute to addressing climate change.

Besides the US, other EGA participants which did not take the floor this time were Costa Rica, Iceland, Israel and Liechtenstein.

The Committee meeting also heard the WTO secretariat briefing on the status of the negotiations on fisheries subsidies disciplines.

Norway said it was preparing to submit a proposal. “We hope to have a consolidated draft text before the summer break,” it said. Norway maintained that doing so would put members on a good track for work in the autumn ahead of the eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December.

At present, there are four draft texts on fisheries subsidies: a joint proposal from New Zealand, Iceland and Pakistan; a proposal from the EU; a proposal from Indonesia; and a proposal from a group of Latin American countries (Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Uruguay).

Besides these four draft texts, there are also two papers, one by the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of states, and the other by the least developed countries (LDCs).

In a related development, the ACP Group circulated a revised paper on 20 June on principles and elements for concluding the negotiations on fisheries subsidies, in which it said that it intends to circulate a text proposal and looks forward to further engagement with members towards a decision at the eleventh Ministerial Conference.

Meanwhile, the Committee also heard Canada provide a briefing on the status of separate negotiations on a plurilateral Fisheries Subsidies Agreement.

According to trade officials, Canada informed the Committee that a fifth round of talks was scheduled for the end of July.

Earlier rounds of talks had been held in January, March and May, and the fourth round was “currently underway.”

Canada said that the group was working on developing disciplines on subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as well on subsidies that lead to overcapacity and overfishing.

Canada said that they were considering elements such as transparency and the form of the agreement.

It said that the plurilateral negotiations were “open to any WTO member willing to participate.”

Canada maintained that this smaller negotiating group was “complementary to the multilateral negotiations” and that they did not believe that progress in one precluded progress in the other. (SUNS8488)                                            

Third World Economics, Issue No. 641, 16-31 May 2017, pp8-9