by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 20 Mar 2000 -- The mandated negotiations on continuing the reform process in agriculture to be started at a special session of the Agriculture Committee Thursday may well have an inauspicious beginning, without being able to elect a Chairman.

This became clear Monday, when at an informal meeting of the General Council, the EC made clear its objection to electing Ambassador Celso Amorim of Brazil to be the Chairman of the Committee and lead the negotiations at the Special Sessions.

The EC in turn proposed the name of the Moroccan ambassador, Amb.Nacer Benjelloun-Toumi, but the way the name was proposed and the way the chair of the General Council asked Benjelloun whether he would be available, perhaps created more complications.

In the event, the General Council is unable to complete the choice of chairs of various bodies, including that of the TRIPS Council (meeting this week to kick off the mandated reviews in TRIPS).

It had been initially agreed informally that the TRIPS Council chairmanship would go to Pekka Huhtaniemi of Finland. But the EC stand on the chair for the agriculture committee resulted in its blocking.

The EC had originally wanted its candidate, Michael Dowling, former official at the agriculture ministry of Ireland to lead the talks. But this was not acceptable to others, not only to the Cairns group, but several others who wanted the chairman to be a Geneva-based personality.

Amorim, a former foreign minister of his country at the time of the signing of the Marrakesh Agreement, commands considerable personal respect among the membership of the WTO, and the EC objection, on the basis that he comes from a country member of the Cairns group, upset not only the Cairns group and Latin American members, but others too.

Short of a miracle, a last-minute consensus choice for the chair, the agriculture talks could at best begin by continuing for the present, the current chairman of the committee, Amb. Nestor Osario Londono or having the negotiations chaired by the director of the division or led by the Deputy Director-General (under whom agriculture falls) said one trade diplomat.

An informal consultation at non-ambassadorial level, at the instance of Canada Monday, participants said that Members had problems on one or the other of these choices.

"It does not convey a proper message to the outside world, but it is better than not having the committee meet and start the talks," one trade diplomat said.

At whatever level the committee meets, there is unlikely to be much movement, beyond trying to set a work programme or calendar for the rest of the year. Members expect the committee to set a December 2000 deadline for proposals to be put forward on the further reform process, with some flexibility for developing country members.

But looking beyond, no serious negotiations or moves towards one can be expected until after the US Presidential elections in November, the new President-elect entering office in January, and an initial period for the administration to organise itself.

At that time, the EC might try to win US support for launching a comprehensive round, including investment and competition issues, hoping that with US support the developing countries opposing these and other issues could be pressured into it.

Some Cairns group members privately say there can be no progress until the expiry of the 'peace clause' in January 2004, as per Art. 13 of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA).

That article provides that for a nine-year period from 1995, that notwithstanding the provisions of GATT 1994 and the Agreement on Subsidies and Counter-vailing Measures, so long as domestic support measures conform fully to the provisions of AoA, they would be non-actionable subsidies for countervailing duties, and expect from GATT Art XVI about subsidies and Part III of the Subsidies Agreement (actionable subsidies), exempt from counter-vailing duties and investigations unless there be a determination of injury to domestic producers. Export subsidies too will be similarly covered by the peace clause.

In this view, some Cairns group members think that the EC would be serious about negotiating a new agreement in agriculture, and thus continue a peace clause ensuring other WTO agreements don't apply, only near the time the peace clause is due to expire.

But the view that a comprehensive round, with a number of issues, would enable members to establish a give-and-take and balance, runs against the experience of the Uruguay Round which had some 14 subjects listed for negotiations, and in fact involved more than a score issues and areas. But at the end of it, and after 5 years, developing countries find no balance, rather than an asymmetry and non-realization of expected benefits. They are finding the agreements as asymmetric and iniquitous and hence they seek changes through 'implementation'.

To believe that a new round with new issues, and covering areas that intrude further into the domestic economic decision-making of countries, would provide a new balance and assure benefits appears to be a case of promises against experience. (SUNS4631)

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

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