Cairns group proposals for market access

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 14 Nov 2000 - The Cairns Group of countries presented proposals at the World Trade Organization Wednesday for deep tariff cuts and for substantial increase in market access for all agricultural and agro-food products. The Cairns Group proposals, unveiled to the media by Australia Tuesday, is due to be presented Wednesday at the Special Session of the Committee on Agriculture which is running the negotiations on agriculture.

The Cairns Group has 18 members; but the proposal is not signed by Canada (which presented its own proposals at the last session) and by Fiji. The latter made statements in Suva this week that suggested that Fiji, which depends on the European market and its preferential import price for its principal export crop, sugar, was supportive of the EC idea of ‘multi-functionality’.

A statement in Ottawa said that Canada was not backing the Cairns group proposal. There were already several major market access proposals, and Canada has already put forward a ‘targeted and practical’ approach, fully reflecting Canada’s negotiating position. “In this light, Canadian government has decided not to participate in the position paper on market access of the Cairns Group,” the Canadian statement said.

The difference between the current Cairns proposal and that of Canada is that the latter places emphasis on the expansion of import quotas and on immediate market access. The other Cairns members view the Canadian proposals as specific aspects of a larger problem and focus their demands on tariff reduction.

The Cairns Group says its proposal would address all aspects of market access—tariffs, non-tariff peaks, tariff escalation, tariff quotas and their administration, and other measures including special safeguard provisions under the AoA. The group also calls for what it calls ‘substantial down payments’ to ensure that the reform process continues during the negotiations.

The downpayment, it says, should comprise a substantial tariff reduction consistent with levels that would have been required if the Uruguay Round reform process had continued at the same pace, and a substantial expansion of tariff quota volumes, consistent with the levels that would have been required if the UR process had continued.

In terms of special and differential treatment for developing countries, calls for operational S&D provisions and greater improvement of opportunities and terms of market access. There should be faster and deeper cuts in, or elimination of tariffs on all agricultural products, including value added products, produced in and exported by developing countries; tariff quota administration rules to provide for improved opportunities for exports from developing countries. It also calls for “preservation of the current special safeguard” for developing countries to assist with domestic and international agricultural reform efforts and in countering subsidised competition. These are not spelt out.

But in its general approach, the Cairns Group proposal calls for elimination of access to special agricultural safeguard mechanism contained in Article 5 of the AoA.

Several developing countries, including some of the Cairns group members in the like-mind group and other developing countries and trade experts, have drawn attention to the fact that these special safeguard mechanisms are available only to those industrialized countries with high protectionist non-tariff barriers in the past which they have converted into very high import tariffs, and enable them to insulate their markets. These countries have in fact called for some special safeguard measures that could be used by the developing countries to protect their agricultural sectors against the subsidised exports of the major trading partners, without having to take the more difficult route of anti-dumping investigations and countervailing duties.

So far, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Norway and Switzerland, have not proposed any initiative before the WTO on the agriculture. They are expected to do so only in first quarter of 2001, the deadline set for finalising the proposals and setting guidelines.

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

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