A progress report of large gaps and ‘bridging’ efforts

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 26 July 2001 - - A progress report on preparations for the Doha Ministerial Conference, sent to WTO members by the General Council Chairman, Mr. Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China, has given a “sobering” assessment of the preparatory process and of “gaps among positions on key issues remain[ing] wide”, even while attempting to create a momentum for the launch of a new round of multilateral trade negotiations at Doha.

The report, prepared by Harbinson ‘in cooperation’ with the WTO Director-General, on their own responsibility and as an “evaluation” of the state of progress has used terms like ‘many’ (which in the dictionary as an adjective merely means an indeterminate number) to suggest more than the actual reality.

And given the lapse back into the old GATT ways, of consultations in small groups, and informally, the assessments in the numbers game about one view and another, is even more subjective than ever.

In the after-shock of Seattle, and perhaps thanks also to the previous Chairman, Mr. Kyrn Bryn of Norway, the GC consultations had been inclusive and more transparent, some trade diplomats said. Even when Bryn met with a smaller group, immediately thereafter he used to hold meetings open to all membmers to provide reports.

At the General Council’s plenary meeting on implementation, Jamaica in fact complained about the lack of transparency in the consultations.

Next week’s stock-taking and assessment meeting was originally to have been a kind of deadline to collectively assess and agree on an agenda for Doha, and start the drafting of a Declaration. But in an effort to give themselves time to apply pressures at capitals and elsewhere, the majors, and the DG, have changed the process and the timelines.

There are also clearly attempts to repeat the past, including the pre-Punta del Este (1986) process, with a mixture of vague promises and blandishments, mixed with the reality of new market access restrictions, ‘grey area’ measures (like organising a steel cartel and managing that trade) and the likelihood of more unilateral restrictions on textiles and clothing, or banning imports on grounds of labour and environmental protection etc.

In an overall evaluation, Harbinson says that attention in the preparatory process “has increasingly focused on the possible enlargement of the negotiating agenda.”

This appears to be an attempt at post-facto legitimisation of the process Harbinson and the DG and his officials have been engaged in for the last several weeks, without any mandate, in fact. In informal meetings, and in smaller conclaves, and with repeated consultations, Harbinson perhaps has spent more time on expanding the agenda than on other matters of the work programme - with the argument that these last were being handled in separate tracks.

“The discussions so far have shown wide and growing - though not universal - support among WTO Members for enlarging the agenda,” claims Harbinson, and to strengthen that view he refers to the “calls... made in various international fora by a range of governments for the launch of a new Round in Doha,” qualifying it with the remark, “though others have been more cautious and some say that they are yet to be convinced.”

For many delegations it is clear that “the launch of a wider negotiating programme is effectively the working hypothesis.” However, even those who share this view “are still a long way from reaching consensus on the scope and level of ambition that an enlarged negotiating agenda would have... gaps among positions on key issues remain wide.”

“It is an urgent necessity to narrow these gaps,” he adds.

He acknowledges that more also needs to be done to meet the concerns of “some WTO Members, particularly some developing and least-developed countries, about the prospect of taking on new negotiations when they face problems with existing commitments.”

While in “some cases” this may be a question of building capacity, “much, however, depends on a satisfactory outcome to the intensive effort going on under a General Council mandate to resolve implementation- related issues and concerns.”

Mr. Harbinson also claimed that in respect of this last “there have been some welcome advances in the process lately, but this needs to lead to tangible progress if these issues are to contribute to, rather than impede, agreement on the package for Doha... It is clear that, for a number of Members, progress towards resolving their implementation-related concerns will condition their approach to a possible expansion of the negotiating agenda.”

Stressing the need to move beyond consultation to negotiation as rapidly as possible, developing a sense of the positive connections and tradeoffs among issues and positions, Harbinson said in some cases, their work may be close to the limits of what is possible in terms of building consensus on specific issues in the absence of convergence on the broader picture.”

He called for focussing in the short time ahead, on “solutions for individual issues as part of an acceptable whole.”

In identifying what he claims to be areas of convergence and divergence in the various areas covered by the Checklist of Issues circulated by the Chairman of the General Council on 20 April 2001 (for a Doha declaration), Harbinson said though they had been the subject of intensive work over the last few months, “in too many cases, the results so far have not yet been proportionate to the effort.”

“It is not simply the extent of the outstanding differences in position that is worrying, it is also the apparently entrenched nature of some of these differences.” Though in the past month, there have been some encouraging signs of greater engagement to find common ground, these signs need to be translated into concrete terms if they are to prove meaningful.

This would mean considering, for example, the relationship between the scope of the agenda and levels of ambition. “Otherwise we risk entering a vicious circle where the question of whether to launch a Round and the question of its agenda pursue each other.”

“We also cannot run the risk of going to Doha with too many complex issues still open,” he said, though many trade diplomats of developing countries fear that with the Director-General set on ‘launching a new round’ before his term ends, and the EC and US believing that with bilateral and other pressures, and the environment of a meeting in Doha in relative peace, they could repeat the Singapore Ministerial Conference and force down last- minute compromise language that could be used to expand the agenda at Geneva.

The report adds: “The assessment of the present situation cannot be other than a sobering one. The task of bridging the substantial gaps we still face in a very short time is difficult and complex. It is not impossible, however, given two essential conditions: a strengthening of the political will to find “consensus solutions and the conversion of that political will into negotiated outcomes.”

“Failure to arrive at a consensus in the weeks to come on a future agenda for the WTO which advances the objectives of the multilateral trading system could call into question both our approach to decision-making and the value of the WTO as a forum for negotiations.”

On implementation, he claimed work that was proceeding though progress “in achieving concrete results” has not been as rapid as might have been hoped. He claimed some progress and “positive developments” such as in the paper of the group of 7 (the submarine group), and of “some headway” in the past few weeks.  However, he said, there were indications of an “enhanced sense of engagement and willingness” on the part of some key members to address the issue, though delegations still continued to maintain a range of views, with little significant movements as yet towards convergence.

On agriculture, the report claimed that negotiations were moving forward, with most members fully engaged in the process. Though there was some broadly shared view on the treatment of this issue at Doha, the gap remained wide. There were also strong differences on further guidance from ministers on negotiations sought by some, and others who feel that only under a “new round” scenario, a high level of specificity on what has to be reformed could be provided.

The report saw the services talks as progressing reasonably well.

On trade and investment, there are those favouring the launch of negotiations, others for continuation of the study process, and a third group for a more focussed work programme, with ministers revisiting it in 2003 (an euphemism for the move of South Africa’s Erwin for an automatic launch of negotiations at that time).

A similar range of views have been presented under trade and competition, on transparency in government procurement, trade facilitation,and market access in non-agricultural products “with a small number of delegations” not in favour of lowering their tariffs.

However, in the context of a broader negotiating agenda, and satisfactorily addressing other issues and linkages, “an overall consensus would be possible.”

On trade and environment, the Harbinson report sees a convergence in reaffirming the WTO’s commitment for sustainable development, but with wide divergences still on any “operational treatment” of environmental issues in relation to possible negotiations on market access or rules-related issues.

There was also wide support for negotiations on anti-dumping, but the position of those who have not so far expressed their views remained to be clarified.  There was also support from a significant number of members for negotiations on the subsidies agreement to meet the concerns of developing countries, but with others having reservations.

Any objective assessment by those who have a real interest in a rules-based system that would be sustainable and could evolve and survive, would perhaps conclude that the best the Doha meeting could do would be to make some suitable noises, perhaps admit China (if the documents are cleared) and go back to Geneva for inclusive, more transparent, and more patient negotiations among ambassadors - with a director-general paying more attention to run the secretariat to service the membership more objectively. But that may be too much. – SUNS4946

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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