EC wants high-level trade and environment meet

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: The European Commission Vice-President and Trade Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan, proposed on 23 March a high- level trade and environment meeting in Geneva this autumn "to break the logjam" in the WTO's consideration of trade and environment issues.

Such a meeting, he said, should be prepared by the WTO's Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE).

Brittan, who made the proposal at a non-official meeting organized by the Bellerive Foundation and GLOBE International, wanted the high-level meeting to tackle the problems of trade rules and multilateral environment agreements (MEAs), eco- labelling, and the application of the "precautionary" principle.

The EC Trade Commissioner also spoke on the need to eliminate "trade obstacles to environmental goods, services and technologies" and advocated the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to such trade in goods and services.

The way Brittan presented his proposals on some of the issues, and the concerns voiced by Northern environment groups, appeared to imply a logjam at the CTE caused by the developing countries who oppose solutions to these questions.

As part of the accords to conclude the Uruguay Round, the EC and the US had pushed for a narrow range of issues, and possible changes to trade rules, to be considered under a trade-and-environment agenda.

However, developing countries insisted on the entire range of WTO agreements to be looked at by the CTE - including trade in goods, services and intellectual property issues - in terms not only of environmental protection, but also of sustainable development. Even the conclusion of the Uruguay Round became possible only when a CTE with a comprehensive agenda was agreed upon.

Before Marrakesh, and after, in the run-up to the first Ministerial Conference at Singapore, the CTE discussions were bogged down by the attempts of the EC, the US and the rest of the industrial world to deal with a narrow range of issues - general exceptions from trade rules to MEAs, with or without universal membership, and issues of eco-labelling (public and private).

But there has been resistance, using the consensus requirements, on either not allowing other issues to progress at equal pace or blocking actions on them - including on issues of technology transfer of environmentally sound technologies for sustainable development, where the core issue is one of intellectual property protection and required changes in the TRIPs rules and/or making TRIPs consistent with the needs and requirements of the Convention on Bio-diversity.

The EC, for example, has blocked, within the CTE, the making public (and thus creating the much-advocated transparency) of a study of the WTO secretariat on the question of the environmental benefits of ending subsidies (agricultural and non-agricultural).

The non-official forum was intended to bring the differing viewpoints to the table for a dialogue.

But the format of the meeting resulted in the three exponents of the trading system and today's corporatist global economy and neo-mercantilism of powerful countries - the WTO Director-General Renato Ruggiero, Brittan, and the Chairman of the Davos Symposium - coming and delivering their views, but not being around to answer questions from the audience or respond to the opposing views of other panellists.

And even the choice of panellists and commentators was such that no one fully familiar with the details of the WTO rules and the actual functioning of the system was there who could challenge the dominant views.

Earlier, Ruggiero projected the WTO as a "rule-based" rather than "power-based" system, and pointed to the increasing share of developing countries in world trade and the faster growth of their exports, to argue that it was all a "virtuous circle of globalization". He cautioned against blaming globalization for all social and economic ills, and against seeking solutions to environment and social problems at the WTO. He also spoke of the decisions in the system being based on consensus and the agreements being ratified by Parliaments, thus becoming "transparent".

Ruggiero, however, did not address, and there was no one around to ask, how the actual Uruguay Round agreements were 'negotiated' within a small group of countries without any transparency and with the public not made aware of any moves and accords until they had been concluded.

He did not also address the issue, raised by many governments at Singapore and since then, at the informal consultations to prepare for the May Ministerial meeting, of the lack of transparency in the consultation processes, and developing countries being faced with decisions reached within a small group and told not to upset the balance but to accept the decisions by consensus. (Third World Economics No. 182, 1-15 April 1998)

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