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TRADE-AFRICA: Make or Break for WTO Doha Round

Analysis by Aileen Kwa*

GENEVA, Feb 29 2008 (IPS) - The World Trade Organisation’s beleaguered Doha Round could either be wrapped up in the next two to three months or be stalled for an indefinite period of time.

There is a huge amount of uncertainty in Geneva about how the talks will pan out this year. Some member states insist that, despite the current negotiating frenzy, no movement will be possible. Others are worried that the upcoming ‘‘Green Room’’ process will be used to bamboozle the majority of members into an undesirable outcome.

‘‘Green Room’’ refers to closed-door negotiations held among a limited number of delegations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Revised negotiating texts were released on February 8. Since then, the talks have been merely ‘‘exploratory’’, as characterised by an African negotiator. ‘‘It is all very unpredictable.’’

An initial plan for a closed-door meeting of a small group of ministers around Easter time in March has now been rescheduled for April. It remains unclear if the April target can be achieved. According to a negotiator from a major developing country, ‘‘I still think it can be done but every time I do my sums they do not add up’’.

Referring to the lack of interest on the part of the U.S. in the context of their November presidential elections and the recent statement by France that 20 European Union (EU) countries reject the revised agriculture draft text, he said, ‘‘we are more or less running out of time and the U.S. still doesn’t seem to move much.

‘‘The EU, which was the one pushing for a conclusion of the talks, seems to be doing things which will not help. They are digging in their heels, probably for internal political reasons.’’

While the prospects for a conclusion of the Doha Round are far from bright, he said that there was still a possibility. ‘‘The U.S. and EU can change their positions.’’

Those in Geneva pushing for a conclusion of the Round – the European Commission and Brazil – seem to be giving themselves a timeline of up to May to do so. They are working on the premise that the Bush administration may still be able to convince the U.S. Congress to sign off on a Doha package.

Analysts in Washington, however, think that that window of opportunity has long passed.

The European Commission also wants a package sealed before the French take over the EU presidency in July. The Commission is also keen to conclude the Round in order to be ‘‘paid’’ for the reforms it has made to its common agricultural policy.

Brazil has wanted the Round to conclude in order to advance its agricultural exports, although not at any cost. Recently, the talk in Geneva is that Brazil’s trade minister, Celso Amorin, who used to be Brazil’s ambassador to the WTO, has his eye on the WTO director general position. This is perhaps also contributing to Brazil’s enthusiasm in pushing for a ‘‘successful’’ outcome.

The likelihood for a conclusion, however, looks dim. The revised text of February 8 on agriculture contains myriad number of brackets, meaning many issues remain unresolved. One major and as yet unresolved issue for the majority of developing countries is the special safeguard mechanism (SSM).

The SSM should allow developing countries to raise their tariffs, should they be hit by damaging food import surges. According to an African negotiator, ‘‘the SSM is a big problem. We do not like what is in the chair’s text’’, referring to the chairperson of the agriculture talks.

The chairperson’s proposals are much more restrictive than what the Group of 33 (now including 46 developing countries) has been asking for.

On February 22, the chairperson of the agriculture negotiations, New Zealand’s ambassador Crawford Falconer, reportedly told the membership that the discussions of the past two weeks on the revised draft have not borne fruit. There have been no substantial breakthroughs.

If positions remain entrenched into March, he said that he could not promise the membership that he would be able to issue another version of the agriculture text.

The most strident complaints, however, have been in reaction to non-agricultural market access (NAMA) which is about the liberalisation of industrial products. The latest version showed no significant differences from the previous July version which the majority of developing country members had rejected.

Given the major gaps that remain, some negotiators in Geneva are worried about the process that WTO director general Pascal Lamy is preparing to orchestrate in the coming weeks.

Technical discussions are likely to conclude by the end of February. By early March, it is expected that the ‘‘horizontal’’ process will commence, which refers to closed door ‘‘Green Room’’ discussions led by Lamy and confined to 30 or so delegations.

These discussions will be held at level of senior officials and ambassadors. Many members regard the technicians in Geneva as having more savvy than senior officials in their understanding of the negotiating details.

The negotiations on agriculture and NAMA will happen simultaneously in order for concessions to be made across these issues. The EU and India are also pushing for services to be included.

Lamy hopes that through this horizontal process most of the remaining gaps will be addressed. This would then culminate in a ‘‘mini-ministerial’’ meeting in April.

The EU also wants a ‘‘signalling’’ conference to be held on services at the time of such a ministerial meeting where these 30 or so countries would make commitments about how far they would go in further liberalising their services sectors.

This ‘‘Green Room’’ ‘‘horizontal process’’ is worrying to some of the smaller developing country delegations. In the past these closed door processes have been used to pick off developing countries one by one, and arm-twist them into compliance.

According to an African negotiator, ‘‘members should continue discussing the text until the substance is ready for political decisions. We should not be forced into the horizontal process or into a mini-ministerial before the substance is ripe. This should be a substance-driven process and not an attempt to meet some target, such as Easter’’.

Nevertheless, he continued, ‘‘I don’t think we will make it this year even though we are very close. The issues remaining in agriculture can be resolved. It could be possible if the political situation were ripe’’.

Another negotiator quipped, ‘‘if it cannot be concluded in March, I don’t see how it can be concluded in April’’. The danger is that a text biased against small developing countries’ interests could be sealed and then picked up when the Round is resurrected.

*The first in a two-part series

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