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From a bicycle ride (before Seattle) to Camel Sprint for Doha

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 27 June 2001 - - A two-day informal senior official level meeting of the General Council , to prepare for the Doha Ministerial Conference, ended Tuesday, with GC Chair Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China claiming at the end “wide support” on enlargement of the WTO work programme and negotiating agenda, but with “different perspectives on scope and level of ambition of an enlarged negotiating agenda” and with members “still a long way apart on a number of issues.”

In exhorting members on the need to see significant movement towards convergence, Chairman Harbinson said: “We need to have a clearer idea of how we can deal with the most problematical issues. We may not be able to solve all of them, but we should aim for clarity on how we can approach finding acceptable and balanced outcomes. This will help build a firm foundation for detailed drafting work in the autumn.”

While the United States wanted a Doha declaration launching a new round “with a mandate in general terms, like that at Punta del Este”, and the EC’s Peter Carl wanted a “permissive and sufficiently open-ended and not restrictive” mandate for a new round, many developing countries and their senior officials said they had learnt from the mistakes they committed at Punta del Este in identifying some of the issues and allowing the negotiating mandate to be developed, which enabled the US and EC to constantly expand and change the mandates and negotiations.

Developing countries welcomed the general expression of support and promises on need to address the implementation issues, that came from the majors, but said at the moment these were at the level of generalities, with some remarks suggesting they would be solved or taken up only if a new round was launched at Doha. This would not ‘sell’ in developing countries, and only appreciable progress on these would the prevalent atmosphere against the WTO in the developing world.

One trade diplomat from a country that favoured a new round said that his country would insist on a precisely worded mandate, and would not be amenable either to bring later other items on to the agenda or modify and change the negotiating mandate.

Early Monday afternoon, as the meeting began and the two major powers had pronounced themselves and presented an air of unity and alliance to launch a new round with an ambitious agenda, with the US providing support to the EU on the new issues, and the EU hardening its position on them, an aura of the trade juggernaut having started to roll, and developing countries having to jump on, was evident at the World Trade Organization.

But during the two days of extended speeches, with some 49 delegations speaking, and many presenting detailed positions of what their country could accept and would not, there was a feeling that in fact the meeting, with participation of senior officials from capitals, had perhaps ‘hardened’ positions, and that even the ‘unity’ of the US and EC, and their determined effort not to air their differences, could not conceal the gaps.

And while there seemed greater support for “launching a round” at Doha, with most members saying “yes, but...” and a few being very sceptic, if not bluntly opposed to ‘a round’ without agreement on the negotiating agenda and mandate, or taking on issues other than those already under negotiations (agriculture, services, mandated reviews, and now, TRIPS and public health), the outcome was not at all that clear.

In an earlier draft of his concluding remarks, Harbinson had planned to express ‘disappointment’ that a number of delegations had repeated ‘well-known positions” at some length and there was less interactions overall than one had hoped for.

The meeting brought forth several similes and allegories to describe the situation at the WTO and the process for Doha. Everyone spoke of the need to prevent a repetition of Seattle, and the need for a successful 4th Ministerial meeting. There was talk of the US and EC ‘joint train’ ready on the platform and about to steam off, with developing countries having to scramble on board, coupled with warnings that if everyone was not on board, there could be a train crash too, if the train moved off without a green signal from everyone.

But there was also uneasiness that behind the facade of a US-EC alliance, and a determined effort to present a sense of unity, there were many differences even between the two, and many more with the developing world, who could not be rolled over as in the past; that if the differences of details were not quickly resolved, ‘ ambitions’ scaled down to reality, with consensus on an agreed negotiating agenda work programme by end of July (with only the negotiations on drafting the Ministerial Declaration to begin in September), the WTO may be setting itself once again on the same road as to Seattle.

Mr. Harbinson ended his concluding remarks with an analogy, replacing the bicycle theory of trade talks before Seattle. He cited ‘some one’ in the debate as having referred to the stamina of camels, and remarked: “Maybe it is time to see if camels can sprint.”

Well, camels, unlike horses, have a great deal of stamina to cross deserts with heavy loads on their backs, and little food or water en route. Camels, though they can move fast, generally don’t sprint; and with each of their four legs moving independently, those riding a camel have a pretty bumpy ride.

In the Gulf, camel racing is a sport, with much betting, as in horse racing elsewhere. But human rights groups in the region consider it a ‘cruel race’ and want it to be ended because, among others, to run in a ‘race’, camels must have little weight on their backs, and so children are brought in (mainly from South Asia), strapped on the backs of camels, which are then goaded to race.

If the WTO were to attempt camel ‘sprinting’ here and at Doha to agree on an agenda and launch a round, members can expect a rough ride at Doha, and also back home when their ministers return home.

One trade diplomat said at the end of the two-day meeting, that while almost everyone seemed willing to agree or acquiesce to a new round, there were vast gaps and differences on what the round should consist of. A few bluntly came out against launching ‘a new round’ at Doha, while many others couched their responses in terms of ‘yes, but...’.

However, with the ‘buts’ encompassing so many reservations and differences in details, it was difficult to judge whether the senior officials meeting has smoothened the way for the launch of a new round at Doha, or solidified positions, making it more difficult to find compromises.

As another trade ambassador put it, “the devil is in the details (of what would be in the round)” and the h capital- based officials, restating in detail their country positions in their presentations, showed (contrary to the myths spread about the WTO accredited ambassadors and their stands) that if anything, the positions of capitals was harder, and attempts to bypass trade diplomats would not get anywhere.

Another, an East European, said it is a mistake to bypass ambassadors here, and by bringing in vice-ministers and ministers from capitals and making them deal with a range of issues and subjects in the belief that they could negotiate and agree on a range of them. “If on 25 June, the majors and others, can only state their views in generalities as they have done, and considerable differences remain in details, the process merely gets hardened.”

There were also some other indications Tuesday that the meeting had not run according to script.

The WTO media office had originally announced that at the end of the meeting, Chairman Harbinson and WTO Director-General Mike Moore would jointly hold a press conference. The meeting itself had perhaps been expected to run for no more than a day, and the press conference was tentatively set for Monday evening when the meeting ends.

The Monday press conference was put off, on the ground that Mr. Harbinson was chairing the meeting, and Moore could not meet the press without him, but that there would be a press conference on Tuesday. But the press conference was ultimately cancelled, with the media office not even scheduling any briefing, but making available, on request, Harbinson’s closing remarks as revised and delivered.

Speaking outside - and some of these assessments were reportedly voiced at the meeting of the informal developing country group on Wednesday - delegations seemed to share several perceptions of the ‘event’.

There was an initial view, after the statements early in the ‘debate’ of the US position, including clear support to a new round and going some way to accommodate some of the EC demands (about expanding the agenda to include negotiations on Singapore issues), and the unexpectedly hard line taken by the EC (buoyed by the feeling that the US was now on board), to insist on a new round with investment, competition policy, and identifying clearly rules under government procurement as an important element of the increased market access, that there was a momentum

In this initial view, firstly, the United States which hitherto was taking the position of its being in a ‘listening mood’, sought to send out a clear signal of an alliance (it was not clear whether it was a strategic or tactical one) with the EU to launch a new round, with a balanced agenda, including on how to deal with the Singapore issues (investment, competition policy, trade facilitation and government procurement).

Secondly, emboldened perhaps by the US support and willingness to present a joint front with Europe, the European Communities took a harder line both on a new round and its content, insisting they could not envisage any new round without investment, competition policy, trade facilitation and government procurement.

The EC, in fact, abandoned some of the compromise talk it had been engaging in, such as that in relation to government procurement negotiations, it only envisaged ‘transparency in government procurement’, but now clearly identifying, in terms of Market Access, as a priority issue: that for the EC “Government Procurement is also important and we should foresee further market opening.”

Thirdly, the meeting blew up the myth spread around (and one that was clearly behind the convening of the Senior Official-level meeting) that the trade missions of developing countries were taking rigid positions and that the thinking in the capitals was somehow different.

The statements of several of the senior officials from capitals showed that the two were not only on the same wave-length, but capitals were now aware of, and determined not to commit the same mistakes as in the run-up to and the launch of the Uruguay Round, with some compromise language in the mandate of negotiations that the majors and the secretariat managed to use and manipulate to expand, and resulting in agreements that so far had brought the developing world little or no benefits, but many obligations.

Earlier, in opening the meeting, Harbinson had suggested that in developing any mandates, “we should not pre- negotiate the issues”.

But the interventions of many developing countries, at the level of their capital officials, made clear that they were not going to commit the same mistake as at Punta del Este, but want a clear definition of the agenda of negotiations and the mandate for such negotiations.

Fourthly, at least one of the major proponents of a new round and its willingness to consider new issues, namely, the Cairns group of agricultural exporters, appeared to be ‘disturbed’ by indications that the US-EC alliance and talk of an ‘ambitious’ agenda, in fact, involved the ‘dilution’ of the agenda for further agricultural talks, and that the United States was willing to jettison the Seattle text in this area, and to stick to the mandate for further reform in terms of Article 20 of the Agreement on Agriculture.

Some of the developing-country Cairns group members, after a lunch meeting with the US, came away quite disturbed, and were concerned that the US-EC alliance could end up like the “Blair House” compromise on agriculture in the Uruguay Round, where the two sides came to an agreement and forced the Cairns group to accept it..

Uruguay’s vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Guillermo Valles, in a prepared text (and made available in English to the media) said that “there shall be no launching of a new round in Doha” unless there was agreement for “an ambitious mandate” on agriculture, involving elimination and prohibition of export subsidies, production and trade distorting domestic support, and an opening of markets for agriculture similar to that in industrial products.

Harbinson, in his concluding remarks, said that the responses to his question - ‘How can we best move towards common ground among delegations’ positions’ - had provided a sharper focus on issues that delegations considered to be priorities and those where there were significant difficulties. Having senior officials present had helped them to get a better sense of the overall picture, in terms of the connections between issues and the mix of them that would allow them to move ahead.

In that sense, he said, the meeting had been very useful and they could start focussing on finding solutions.

On the basis of the discussions, “there certainly seems to be wide support for an enlargement of the negotiating agenda at Doha.”

“But this support is modulated by a range of differing perspectives on the scope and level of ambition of an enlarged negotiating agenda. The meeting also reinforced my impression that we are still a long way apart on a number of issues.”

Harbinson, however, saw “some welcome nuances or signs of movement in overall positions and many avowals of flexibility.” It was also clear that some major trading partners were working hard to bring their positions closer. He viewed these developments as encouraging, “but they need to be made more concrete, and also to take into account positions among the wider membership.”

The meeting, he said, had also clarified what delegations expected from the process ahead, and there had been a high level of support for the end of July “reality check - - not as a deadline or cut-off point, but as a frank snapshot of progress and problems.”

By the end of July they needed to see a “significant movement towards convergence” in positions of delegations, and a clearer idea of how to deal with the most problematical issues. “We may not be able to solve all of them, but we should aim for clarity on how we can approach finding acceptable and balanced outcomes. This will help build a firm foundation for detailed drafting work in the autumn.”

Harbinson indicated that by end of July the WTO Director-General and himself would provide an evaluation of the state of work, identifying elements of convergence and differences, and hold an informal General Council meeting around 30 July to take stock of the situation. “Something we can all reflect on is whether this meeting might also involve senior officials.

The meeting, he said, had been a “wake-up call” for members, ahead of the next major benchmark in a month’s time and he hoped this would be heard clearly in capitals. There was much to reflect on and act before (the Northern) summer break (in August), and the avowed flexibility mentioned by members had to be operationalized. – SUNS4924

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

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