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TRADE: WTO Delegates Following Talks Through News Media

Analysis by Aileen Kwa*

GENEVA, Jun 23 2008 (IPS) - As closed-door meetings proceed between selected countries, other member states of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have resorted to following media reports in an attempt to stay abreast with the current Doha Round of negotiations on agriculture and industrial goods.

Delegates told IPS that the talks have become non-transparent. A number of limited-attendance, high-level meetings involving senior officials and ambassadors are taking place while the majority of members are excluded. Many are feeling more and more frustrated about being locked out.

The mini-ministerial meeting that the WTO Secretariat had optimistically punted for earlier this month has been put on hold.

As a delegate from one of the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) group of countries told IPS on condition of anonymity, ‘‘the meetings are all restricted. It is the masters of the universe who are part of them. We are not there.

‘‘Thank goodness for freedom of the press,’’ he said, alluding to the daily news reports of ‘‘Inside U.S. Trade’’ and the ‘‘Washington Trade Daily’’. These have become some delegates’ sources of information on the various by-invitation-only negotiating meetings.

The chairpersons of the talks at the top of the agenda – agriculture and industrial goods or non-agricultural market access (NAMA) – released new negotiating texts on May 19. However, even with these revised texts, too many issues remained unresolved.

The major states, including Brazil, then advised WTO Director General Pascal Lamy to hold off on the mini-ministerial meeting until more convergence between positions emerges.

Negotiations during the past year took place in chairperson-led technical meetings of over 30 delegations – the so-called Room D, E or F discussions, depending on the room that was used at the WTO headquarters in Geneva. The process has now changed.

Senior officials from the capitals of the major negotiating parties from both developed and developing countries have been in town for the past two to three weeks. A number of small group consultations at senior official or ambassadorial level have begun.

The closed-door meetings taking place have included Lamy’s ‘‘Green Room’’ meetings of about 30 delegations every Wednesday and Friday morning. These are mainly attended by ambassadors and only one delegate per country is invited. The Lamy Green Room meetings apparently cover the issue of progress in both the agriculture and NAMA talks. ‘‘Green Room’’ refers to limited access.

Whilst not terming it as such, these meetings are in effect the ‘‘horizontal’’ process that Lamy had advocated for some time. This refers to negotiations to take place simultaneously on agriculture and NAMA in order for trade-offs to emerge between the two.

Running parallel are the Group of 12 (G12) meetings on NAMA which are taking place regularly at the U.S. mission. Only about 12 or 13 delegations have been invited to these meetings and they are attended by senior officials from capitals. These meetings are focused on the contentious issues within the NAMA negotiations.

Then there is what is known colloquially in the WTO corridors as ‘‘the Don process’’ where the chairperson of the NAMA negotiations, Donald Stephenson, is conducting his own consultations on countries with levels of bound or committed tariffs at the WTO; and on trade preferences and small and vulnerable economies (SVEs).

Regarding agriculture the chairperson, New Zealand Ambassador Crawford Falconer, has convened what he terms the ‘‘walk in the woods’’ consultations on the issues of special products (SPs), the special safeguard mechanism (SSM) and the Green Box.

Again, only about 13 delegations are invited to these SPs and SSM discussions – usually at senior official or ambassadorial level. These include the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Uruguay and Malaysia on the exporting side and Indonesia, India, China, Turkey, Korea and Kenya that are arguing for the protection of their domestic agricultural sectors.

On the very difficult issues of preference erosion (where the ACP countries want the EU to maintain its tariffs so that they can continue benefiting from preferential access to the EU market) and tropical products (where a group of Latin American countries want the EU to liberalise its tariffs on tropical products), the meetings are not organised by Falconer.

The EU has been meeting separately with these two groups of countries. The latter have not met, despite having directly opposing agendas.

There is very little information flow between the groups engaged in the various consultations. Even less information is flowing to the majority of members thatare left out of these processes. Debriefings have been held on the G12 meetings at the U.S. mission but, according to one source, no real information was provided.

Murmurings are emanating from the excluded majority that it is ‘‘about time’’ they spoke out against these opaque processes.

Meanwhile, two different opinions have emerged on the trajectory of these negotiations. As the days tick by, more members are increasingly doubtful that a Doha deal is possible before the summer break at the end of July.

As one key developing country delegate said in confidentiality to IPS, ‘‘I was much more optimistic a few months ago. In the meetings currently going on, things don’t happen’’. He observed that ‘‘the U.S. seems to be gearing itself up to blame others (if the talks collapse)’’. He characterised the EU as seemingly ‘‘distracted. They don’t seem mobilised’’.

Other delegates speculated that the U.S. might be engineering the collapse of the Doha Round on NAMA to avoid being blamed for its refusal to move on domestic supports.

If July passes without a deal, the possibility of a successful conclusion to the round after the summer may be slim. As a delegate mused, ‘‘it is difficult to imagine that we will have the presence of a minister of the current U.S. administration at a ministerial meeting in September’’.

However, others in Geneva are more cautious. A developing country delegate cautioned that if WTO members allow the Doha Round to be directed by a few members, the prospects for a mini-ministerial meeting before the end of July are ‘‘very high’’.

‘‘We are in a very uncertain and dangerous situation because this is where the process can be hijacked by Pascal Lamy. We can find ourselves in a mini-ministerial without any concrete substance, especially if the chairpersons of the talks revise their texts based on what they think and these texts go straight to the ministerial.’’

* This is the first of two articles by trade policy expert writer Aileen Kwa.

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