Second Ministerial, "a meeting about another meeting"!

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: "This will be 'a meeting about another meeting,' as Indian Ambassador S. Narayanan put it," WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said on 6 May at a press briefing when asked to sum up what could be the outcome of the 2nd Ministerial meeting in Geneva on 18-20 May.

The second Ministerial, with a working session (of discussions among ministers) on the 18th afternoon, and a second on the 20th, will not be a negotiating meeting on the final outcome (with a Ministerial statement or declaration) as at Singapore; and the document would be finalized at an informal heads of delegation meet on 14 May and endorsed at a formal General Council meeting on 15 May, the WTO spokesman said.

After a series of bilateral and plurilateral consultations, WTO head Renato Ruggiero produced a text on 20 April and discussed on 24 April, with delegations making some general comments. Two meetings on 6 May, for a drafting exercise, saw a number of delegations putting forward amendments and changes to the text - many of which were of a drafting nature or were substantive only with regards to the past, but with a few about future work.

And just a week before the finalization of the document, discussions at an informal heads of delegation meet on 6 May showed some gaps in views on substance that remained to be bridged.

Trade officials implied that a minority of delegations were opposed to any wording now which would commit them either to a "Millennium Round" or to a new round of negotiations, with new issues and subjects, and that these delegations wanted, at this stage, no reference or commitment other than to implementation issues or the so-called "built-in agenda" - of further negotiations, or reviews and assessments of existing provisions and so on.

There are others, like the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters and some of the Latin American countries, as well as the European Commission (for the EU states), pushing for a millennium round of old and new issues, and wanting a commitment at the Geneva Ministerial for work to begin on all these issues, and a round to be launched at another Ministerial in 1999.

There will be some "fudged" language to accommodate both sides, to achieve consensus. Each side thinks it knows the other's "bottom line", but will not push and test things at this stage. As a result, some work would begin at the WTO after the summer recess to prepare for the new round with old and new issues, and the crunch would be put off till the next Ministerial, some trade officials suggested.

But other participants suggested that in the trading system, where negotiations are in fact very non-transparent, despite such informal HOD meetings, a few delegations take a position, and others who may agree with them do not express themselves, hoping that these delegations would maintain their positions (and take the odium) while they could benefit, in the favourite trade jargon, as 'free riders'. Later, if the few compromise, the silent blame them for letting others down.

And while there is much talk that lack of "fast-track authority" for the US administration need not come in the way (as negotiations have been launched in the past without such authority, with Congress granting it only during the negotiations), there are some trade observers and specialists who say that the situation is different now.

In previous trade negotiations, while actual fast-track authority sometimes came amidst the negotiations, there was understanding between Congress and the administration on the objectives. But unlike in the past, with the neo-liberal order and the WTO trying to decide domestic policies and override sovereign decisions of countries, the executive and legislative branches are totally divided; and domestic political issues would dominate the debate until at least the next Presidential election and a new man takes over the White House.

In this situation, one Washington analyst, Mr. Craig VanGrasstek, has noted that the administration could use other measures to negotiate, approve and implement trade agreements, but that "this a la carte style of negotiations would make it difficult for the administration to bargain across issue areas, and seek grand exchanges between developing and industrialized nations." The US would try to negotiate accords where its own laws or rules would need no change, and others would need to make concessions.

Hence, the current US thrust for 'sectoral' negotiations (information technology products at Singapore, electronic commerce this time around and so on) and presenting them as plurilateral negotiations that would not deny non-participants their most-favoured-nation (MFN) rights, and that could therefore be lodged inside the WTO.

Serious challenge

However, a serious legal challenge to this is now emerging. When the WTO as an umbrella organization for a single undertaking was being pushed in 1992-93, (it was then called Multilateral Trade Organization), Canada and several others presented it as a way of curbing US unilateralism, preventing any active role in the trade area by UNCTAD or the UN, and ending the post-Tokyo Round situation of a fractured trading system with members having varying rights and obligations. This 'all things to all' scenario has not materialized. And a careful reading of the WTO agreements would reveal that while countries could cut their tariffs bilaterally, but make benefits available to others on an MFN basis, no plurilateral or other negotiations could be launched without the specific sanction of the General Council on a consensus decision.

With the crop of Third World diplomats who negotiated the WTO having left the scene, the same old situation is being reintroduced with these sectoral accords and plurilateral agreements, and a fractured trading system is emerging with varying rights and obligations, with some more equal than others.

The idea for information technology products negotiations was initiated outside the WTO in the run-up to Singapore and dominated the scene there (while everything else was put on the backburner). Negotiations were held outside, with some developing countries finding it in their interest to jump on the bandwagon at the last stage. And it was then said that those not parties would not suffer as they would get MFN benefits.

But the arrangement provides that the future agenda of negotiations in the sector would be decided only by the parties to the accord. And those who are parties hold formal meetings open to everyone but, as in other WTO bodies, take decisions in informal meetings open only to themselves.

In the discussions on 6 May, it would appear that a number of areas of disagreement emerged that key negotiators hope to sort out within the week, before the next informal HOD meet on 14 May.

Among the points of disagreement are:

  • when the next Ministerial is to be held - in 1999 or, as Egypt insists, only in 2000? l when the process to establish the negotiating parameters for it is to be set - in 1999 at the 3rd Ministerial, or in 1999 without any Ministerial meet to launch negotiations?

  • when the preparations for this process should begin - in Geneva this year itself after the Ministerial, or in 1999, or should the issue be left to the General Council?

Argentina, Australia, the Central European countries, Hong Kong and Thailand were said to be favouring the start of a process soon after the Ministerial, while some others, including others in ASEAN, demurred with some nuanced statements. At the last informal, Thailand and Singapore seemed to support a millennium round, while Malaysia (backed by Indonesia and the Philippines) demurred.

  • regionalism within the framework of the multilateral system - whether it should be viewed positively or with some concern;

  • implementation issues.

Several of the developing countries who spoke on 6 May said that the Ruggiero text did not give appropriate weight to the issue, at one stage talking of "commitment for full and faithful implementation", at another of the issue being "closely and effectively monitored by relevant WTO bodies", with difficulties being resolved by the dispute settlement mechanism, and at a third place about work under existing agreements and decisions to constitute "the core of future activities" in the WTO.

While thus seemingly bowing to the varied complaints and concerns of developing countries, the way it has been presented is an attempt to give only verbal support to the developing countries, while again sweeping the problems under the rug, as happened in earlier rounds of the old GATT negotiations. While the major trading nations push ahead with making more inroads into the developing world, some Third World diplomats have had to resort to complaining at other trade-related meetings and seminars outside the WTO.

Colombia, India, Egypt, Pakistan and others raised this issue, trade officials said on 6 May in briefing the press, adding that Ambassador Narayanan of India spoke energetically and vocally at the informal HOD meet, about the implementation problems and the need to focus on them.

Several others, including Cuba and Uganda (for the LDCs), spoke of the marginalization of the developing countries, in particular LDCs, in the system and the need to focus on this and redress the situation.

* future activities in the WTO - where and how are they to be addressed? Several developing countries, trade officials said, wanted this rubric to be limited to the question of implementation and the built-in agenda, including agriculture and services, where further negotiations are mandated, and others where agreements or parts thereof are due for review or further assessment and so on.

India and Pakistan underscored this position, officials said, insisting on the need for a clear distinction between the built-in agenda and anything that could come out of the working groups or study processes set at Singapore.

The industrialized countries wanted the outcome of the working groups to be reflected in future negotiations.

The Ruggiero text, in the operative last para, also envisioned the built-in agenda, Singapore issues and others that may be raised at the 2nd Ministerial being brought onto the future work programme and negotiations.

However, India reportedly said that any reference or wording in the Ministerial text to be adopted at the 2nd Ministerial to include issues on the Singapore declaration as part of a future agenda would create problems for India (to accept the text by consensus). This did not mean that India was ruling out any decisions, but only not at this stage. At an appropriate time, it could be considered by the General Council and decisions taken.

Trade officials also said the Europeans, North Americans (their description) and Latin Americans felt that the Ministerial text was not "ambitious enough".

Meanwhile, Ruggiero and his senior aides have been trying for weeks to drum up media "enthusiasm" for the meeting and for the "celebrations" of the 50th anniversary of the multilateral trading system on the 19th of May.

That "celebration" - the very idea that there is anything to celebrate was challenged by several Third World diplomats at a Third World Network seminar at the end of April - is to be "sandwiched" between the two official working sessions of the Ministerial on the 18th and the 20th, but would not really form a part of the WTO meeting.

At the first WTO Ministerial at Singapore, Canada brought up (at the secretariat's inspiration) the issue of the 50th anniversary, and got that meeting to ordain a celebration along with the 2nd Ministerial, and the General Council was directed to prepare this event.

At Ruggiero's and Canada's instance, the idea of "celebrations" with the participation of heads of state was mooted, and Ruggiero has been trying to arouse enthusiasm through this.

But till very recently, only the heads of Singapore, the previous host, and Switzerland, the WTO host country, had said they would come to participate.

On 6 May, a list of nine was put out by the WTO: the heads of Norway, the UK, Slovenia, Singapore, the European Commission, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and Brazil. Some more were said to be "considering".

The WTO, and some of the Europeans, were trying to promote the attendance of some "black" Africans, and some other Asians, lest the "celebrations" be viewed as a "gathering of one hue". Efforts are reportedly on to bring President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who might say something critical but yet provide some 'legitimacy' to the gathering. It is also hoped that if he comes, a few others from sub-Saharan Africa would also turn up.

It was in this context that the question was posed about how the WTO would describe the next Ministerial and its outcome, and the spokesman fell back to citing the description of the Indian Ambassador at the informal, as "a meeting about another meeting". (Third World Economics No. 184/185)

Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).