General Council chair begins informal consultations on TNC

The chair of the WTO General Council has initiated informal consultations on the organizational aspects of the work programme set by the Doha Ministerial Conference, as various proposals are advanced regarding the establishment and leadership of the negotiating bodies that are to follow up on the Doha outcome.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: The Chairman of the WTO General Council, Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China, has begun informal consultations with individual delegations and small groups on the organization of the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) and the negotiating bodies for the work programme mandated at the 4th WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha.

Trade diplomats said that Harbinson expected to complete this process by the middle of the week of 14 January and then hold a “green room” meeting, followed by an informal open-ended meeting before the formal meeting of the TNC on 28 January.

This is the same kind of process as that which marked the runup to the Doha meeting and the Ministerial itself. That process resulted in the views of the major trading countries being presented as proposals from the chair and pushed through as a consensus.

Chairmanship of TNC

According to trade diplomats, the majors have indicated their view that the TNC should be chaired ex officio by the Director-General of the WTO.

This also appears to have the support of several other WTO Members, including some key developing countries, for various reasons, including the fact that current Director-General Mike Moore will be replaced in August by Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi, who would take over the helm for three years, as per the agreed decision by which Moore was selected.

Supachai himself appears to be canvassing this view, most recently during a visit to Bangalore, India where he attended a meeting organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) would also appear to be supporting this, more so after the many media reports (adroitly publicized by the WTO secretariat through its daily publication of news clippings) which in effect suggested that Supachai is not interested in taking up the DG post and/or that the US and others feel he is not up to the job.

Nevertheless, there is still some opposition to the idea of the secretariat, even the DG ex officio, chairing the TNC. At the General Council meeting in December (see last issue), some members of the like-minded group (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Honduras, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe) put forward a paper proposing, among others, that the TNC function under the General Council (as provided in the mandate), that the Council guide the work of the TNC (rather than merely become a ‘post-office’ between the TNC and the Ministers), and that the chairs of the TNC and of the negotiating bodies be selected in a fully transparent way, reflecting the composition and membership of the WTO, and from among the members of the General Council. Tanzania on behalf of the least developed countries (LDCs) also expressed their preference for a Geneva-based ambassador to chair the TNC.

Changed dynamics

The consultations are taking place even as the dynamics of the negotiations have changed since the Doha Ministerial.

There is the effect of the Trade Promotion Authority (the new name for “fast-track authority”) bill recently adopted by the US House of Representatives setting the negotiating mandate for the US administration. This bill  has written into the law several limitations on what could be negotiated and presented for fast-track approval, including limitations in the agriculture sector and the textiles and clothing sector, as also a number of side-letters that the administration appears to have given to key Congressmen. The US Senate is yet to consider and adopt a bill, but there are enough indications that it will have equally important limitations.

The US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has tried to put a brave face on these, arguing that these are not limitations but merely Congressional mechanisms created to monitor and oversee the talks.

Brazil initially reacted strongly to the limitations and its effects on the ongoing negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas and on the WTO work programme and new round of negotiations. But more recently, the comments and remarks of the Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Lafer have been interpreted in the US media as indicating a softening.

It is, however, clear that in so far as the agriculture sector and trade liberalization of US markets for key imports from Latin America are concerned, the US will be unable to open up the sector to Latin American imports.

This will also necessarily handicap the ability of the US and the Cairns Group (of agricultural exporter countries) to open up the EU  markets.

The economic crisis in Argentina, which marks the collapse of the neoliberal trade and financial model, and the swing of Argentina towards Mercosur (Southern Cone Common Market), is another important element that frames the backdrop of the current WTO consultations.

Negotiating bodies

Trade diplomats said that Harbinson is also consulting on the negotiating bodies to run the various negotiations mandated in the work programme agreed to by the Ministers at Doha.

One view, favoured by most developing countries and smaller delegations, calls for having as many of the issues as possible being handled by the existing WTO bodies, if necessary by holding special sessions thereof back to back with regular sessions, rather than set up parallel bodies. The latter would increase the workload on small delegations.

There should be separate negotiating bodies envisaged only on any negotiations involving cross-cutting issues, several trade diplomats feel, citing the cases of market access for non-agricultural products and of WTO rules.

In this view, at the moment priority and focus is on negotiations on agriculture and services, market access for non-agricultural products and rules.

The EC is also trying to prioritize the trade-and-environment talks.

Some individual names also appear to have been floated to chair some of these bodies, on the basis of  five negotiating groups or bodies to deal respectively with negotiations on agriculture, services, market access for non-agricultural products, the rules area, and trade and environment.

It is not very clear, according to several trade diplomats, whether there are to be separate negotiating groups on agriculture and services, or whether the negotiations are to continue as now in existing WTO bodies: the Agriculture Committee and the Council for Trade in Services.

While the US is reported as still to disclose its hand on prioritizing the trade-and-environment issue or the negotiating body, the names being mooted (and some presumably having the blessings of the majors) appear to include former Director of the WTO secretariat division on services, David Hartridge (who has retired but was continued for the Doha meeting), for the services talks; former Deputy Director-General of the WTO, Anwar Ul-Hoda, for the talks on market access for non-agricultural products; Amb. Perez Castillo of Uruguay for the talks on rules; and former Swedish ambassador and chair of the TRIPS negotiations in the Uruguay Round, Lars Anell, for the talks on trade and environment. Except for Perez Castillo, the other three were very closely involved with the Uruguay Round negotiations in one form or another - and this has some plus and some minus points.

The chair for the agricultural talks is yet to be clearly floated, according to trade diplomats.

On the other issues and questions on the work programme, these for the present would be handled by the existing WTO bodies and/or the study groups already looking into them (as in relation to the four “Singapore issues” of investment, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation).

Several developing countries also say that apart from who is to head what body, the primary question to be addressed and focussed on is the role of any chair in these talks.

They want to ensure that the Doha process, where the general membership was constantly pre-empted by the views of the majors surfacing as proposals from the chair, would not be repeated.

In the December discussions at the General Council, several developing countries had expressed views favouring Geneva-based ambassadors to head the negotiating groups.

This is to ensure that the chairs would be available on the spot for consultations on a continuous basis with trade diplomats and missions; having chairs from outside, in contrast, would give a greater role to the WTO secretariat and in effect force delegations to negotiate with the secretariat.

In addition, the Africans, including the LDCs, have indicated that they would prefer the TNC to be chaired by a Geneva-based ambassador. (SUNS5037)