WTO Doha preparatory process resumes

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 4 Sep 2001 -- Trade representatives of WTO member-countries return to Geneva, after summer holidays, and are due to meet at an informal General Council meeting Tuesday, where the Chairman, Mr. Stuart Harbinson and Director-General Mike Moore are due to set out a programme of bilateral, plurilateral and other consultations towards drafting a declaration.

Though Moore and others have been talking of a ‘growing’ momentum and consensus for a new round with new issues at Doha, and though the United States has now joined the EU (accommodating to the EU’s interests) to push for the launch of a new round, it is clear that there is in fact no real consensus on the contentious issues, and WTO members remain as deeply divided.

The highly publicised meeting of trade ministers from about 17 key countries at Mexico last week, a gathering of ‘invitees’ without any clear rationale for the list of invitees (except perhaps the attempt to isolate those opposing and standing up to be counted), did not appear to have produced any consensus around anything, according to some of the countries that were there and who in turn have been briefing their own friends and constituencies.

The countries that were reportedly present at the Mexico meeting were:

Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, Egypt, Hong Kong China, India, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Tanzania, the US and Uruguay.

One of the stipulations of several who agreed to the Mexico meeting was that this was merely a meeting for ‘exchange of views’, and they did not want any attempt by the chair to sum up the discussions, or even make a statement on its own responsibility, as had happened in some earlier meetings (including one of high officials co-sponsored by the EU and Japan at Coppet, in Switzerland).

The Mexican chair appears to have lived up to this, so that what happened or did not has to be pieced together from various reports and viewpoints that some of the personalities present have said to their own media, and from talks with delegations of countries who were present.

Meanwhile, if the WTO’s “leadership” and the two major powers on whose behalf the WTO these days seems to be run, are intending to delegitimise the Doha meeting and the process even before the start, and whether or not a round is launched at Doha, and make the meeting and its conclusions unacceptable to the public at large, they cannot be going about it better.

The WTO head has been going around the world announcing how the Doha meeting, unlike that at Seattle (or other recent meets like the G-8 at Genoa) would be free of protestors and NGOs and delegations can meet peacefully and take decisions at Doha.

With the host country having already announced at the time of the invitation, how many delegates it can accommodate, the WTO has been ‘rationing’ the seats to delegations, the media and the NGOs, who were told in mid-August that each NGO could get one representative to go to Doha.

At the same time, under the category of NGOs, the US Fair Trade Committee, an industry/commerce advisory body to the USTR, according to the NGOs, is to get some 30 seats, and so will the EU and Japan and others for their industry lobbies.

The aftermath of all this will not only affect the WTO and its legitimacy and acceptance among the wider public about the process, but the host country too, several former Arab ambassadors feel.

Attempting to dismiss the critics and opponents by various name-calling may get newspaper headlines and approval in the western media, particularly those promoting transnational corporate interests, but it will not get very far in the developing and developed countries with the public.

At the Mexico meeting, the overall impression of participants was that the United States was moving towards EU positions, and compromising its own earlier publicly stated positions on investment, competition policy, environment, and on agriculture too.

Even before Mexico, the US had begun to support the EU on including investment and competition in the negotiating agenda.

Between the two of them, they have also managed to silence the UN and various parts of the system, which have been raising their voices in questioning some of these positions.

Hitherto, the US had not been supportive of the EC on the need for clarifying the trade and environment rules - as the US has been worried that the EC will use it to raise barriers against the US itself.

At the Mexico meeting, the EU’s Pascal Lamy, would appear to have indicated that the EU position is only to clarify the situation about environment “within existing rules”, and that there should be some ‘codification’ based on panel and Appellate Body rulings.

However, some of the participants at Mexico, including South Africa, which has been striving to get a new round launched, and Jamaica, said the EU proposal seemed more like a “walk in the dark” and it would be difficult for them to commit themselves to any such agenda.

On agriculture, where both the EC and the US are providing massive subsidies, till now, the Cairns group countries, particularly its developed country members and the Latin American members, used to say that they could agree to a new round provided the mandate on agriculture went beyond Article 20 of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA).

At the Mexico meeting, Pascal Lamy would appear to have said that he could agree to some language going beyond Art. 20, but for elimination of subsidies, particularly export subsidies.

The US is reported to have now come around to this view, and is reportedly pressuring its Cairns group supporters not to push for a wide mandate, or even the type of language that was on the table before and at Seattle.

At Seattle, Lamy seemed to indicate he could agree to the compromise, with some modifications relating to environment, and bringing in GMOs to accommodate the US side, but got a wrap on the knuckles from both EU agriculture and environment ministers.

The Cairns group members were muted at Mexico, but sought to explain it away on the basis that they did not want to take positions ahead of their group meeting (now taking place) at Punta del Este, in Uruguay.

On implementation, the USTR, Robert Zoellick and the EU’s Pascal Lamy, appear to have spoken about the great advances on this issue (through the grant of one-year time extensions on TRIMS and Customs Agreement to some countries) and how the rising exports from the developing world to their markets showed that developing countries had gained from the Uruguay Round!

Publicly, Mr. Zoellick, after the meeting, has complained about the Indian position on implementation, including on textiles and clothing, and has demanded that in order for the US to live up to the commitments already undertaken, India must lower her tariff barriers to the US textiles and clothing exports. The EU has similar demands.

That the US and the EU wanted such a provision in the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing in 1993, but failed, has been forgotten not only by the US and EU ‘trade leadership’ and industry lobbies, but also by the developing countries themselves in trying to defend their positions.

From the discussions at Mexico, and the comments of the US and EC, it is apparent that the two majors and some others would want the Chairman of the General Council and the Director-General to present a compromise package on ‘implementation’ on the basis of the so-called ‘submarine group’ proposals.  Though some of the developing countries see these as an advance, in fact, they are more cosmetic, aimed at helping the developing countries raise the implementation issue to tell their own governments and parliaments that something was being done.

(For a comprehensive earlier report on these issues, see SUNS #4942.)

It is however doubtful whether this would sell back home, in many of these countries.

On the investment and competition issues, South Africa and Egypt too, seemed to back away slightly from their efforts so far to line up Africa behind these EU proposals.

South Africa appears to have said that while it had no problems and favoured investment in the WTO, and agreed with the EU that it was trade-related, the African countries were unwilling at the moment because of institutional incapacities. Egypt too appears to have made similar arguments, saying, “why this hurry before Doha to bring the items on the agenda”.

Perhaps at Doha, the two will join and suggest a two-stage approach (as the South African trade minister Alex Erwin did on 2 December 1999 at Seattle).

The United States appeared to indicate that it may be agreeable to negotiate some changes and clarifications to the anti-dumping rules, but as part of a “Rules negotiations”.

But none of these appear to have won any side over, and at the end of the meeting, it appeared clear that the divisions among the members, even in such a small meeting, was deep and could not be bridged.

At one stage, the Mexican chair appears to have said there could be a trade-off, between environment and agriculture, but this did not remain unchallenged. – SUNS4961

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

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