by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 22 Oct 99 -- The General Council of the WTO, at informal Heads of Delegation (HOD) level, began Thursday a new round of discussions on a draft Ministerial Declaration for Seattle, starting with agriculture, and based on the new 32-page revised draft from the Chairman, Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania.

After two meetings Thursday afternoon and night, followed by consultations among a smaller group of delegations, convened by the WTO Director-General Mike Moore, the membership seemed to remain in at least a 3-way split on what Ministers could specify as a negotiating agenda for the agriculture negotiations to be kicked off at Seattle.

The informal HOD was due to take up Friday the part of the text relating to implementation issues, and then services and other negotiations mandated at Marrakesh.

As per current indications, the informal meetings are to continue over the weekend, going over the entire 32-page revised text.

Before the HOD process began, reports from the capitals of some of the majors, indicated that they were concerned that the implementation questions and proposals of the developing countries has got into the draft text in detail, and will be manoeuvring in the days ahead to get the process into the hands of Moore.

The informal HOD meet began with Mchumo in the chair, but later in the evening when Mchumo had to leave (for a high requiem mass in a local church, for late President Julius Nyerere) Moore took the chair, and continued doing so in the night session.

In beginning the informal HOD meet Thursday, Mchumo in initiating further work is reported to have referred to several meetings taking place or scheduled (inside the WTO and others outside, including a ministerial meeting of some selected countries convened by Switzerland on 25-26 at Lausanne).

Though all kinds of meetings were taking place, the General Council is the principal body, and any subjects to be introduced into the draft text would only be done at the Council, Mchumo said.

The discussions on agriculture were on the basis of some 3-1/2 pages of heavily bracketed text devoted to agriculture, which appears to be generally reflective of various positions and drafts set out by various protagonists in the previous round of discussions.

Australia (the leader of the Cairns Group) complained that the text was a "minimalist" one, but was concerned by the inclusion of the term "multi-functionality" of agriculture. And while Australia was sympathetic to the demand for special and differential (S & D) treatment for developing countries, it needed to see concrete proposals on S & D. It was important to "operationalise" Article 20 of the Marrakesh Agreement on Agriculture (which provides for continuation of the reform process in agricultural trade, and for starting negotiations one year before the end of the implementation period i.e. end 2000).

The EC said that the basis for further negotiations in agriculture was that laid out in Art.20 of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). As it had always maintained, the EU was not ready to begin negotiations, i.e.  engage in pre-negotiations, before Seattle. It was necessary to bear in mind the goals outlined in the Marrakesh agreement, and it should be seen as an on-going process and not the end of the road. The EC made clear that achieving the objectives was not something that could happen within a time-frame.

The EC rejected the view that agriculture could be treated, as several of the Cairns members had argued, like other products. They had to be realistic, the EC said. The EC was also unable to accept or specify any time-table for agriculture negotiations, until the time-table for all the other subjects in the Round emerged. The EC also made clear that the agriculture talks were linked to the other subjects in its "comprehensive agenda".

The EC position of what is described as the 'minimalist' approach in the agriculture text for Seattle, got support from Iceland, the CEFTA countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Poland), Switzerland, Norway, Korea and Turkey.

The Philippines, speaking for "certain" ASEAN members (all the ASEAN, except for Singapore) supported the Cairns group view, but also came out in support of the S & D. Like the Cairns, it too was critical of the introduction of the 'multi-functionality' concept of agriculture.

The US (the only one) expressed concern about the text. The US did not want to talk in the draft text of any references to export credit, bio-tech engineered products, or the sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. In the US view the current SPS and the standards set in it should continue, namely that any restrictions should be based on "science".

The Latin American Cairns group members (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile) made clear that agriculture was extremely important to them and accounted for a rich chunk of their export earnings. Agriculture should be brought under same discipline of trade rules as other products.

Brazil said it 'disliked' the "18-letter word" (multi-functionality) introduced into the agriculture text. Brazil was also very much against the notion of linking agriculture with other items. There were two sets of negotiations -- one agriculture, services and some aspects of TRIPS mandated by Marrakesh, and the other items figuring in the draft.

Canada appealed to the WTO members that they should rise above their national positions, and take a "WTO-approach". It then went on to come out strongly in support of the Cairns group position set out by Australia.

Switzerland echoed the views of the EC.

Egypt appreciated the new revised draft reflecting the various positions, and said they would have preferred a formulation that did not mention 'multi-functionality'. Egypt also focused on the problems of net food importing developing countries (NFIDC), and great attention being paid to problems of the least developed.

Japan, taking the same position as EC and others for a minimal formulation, argued that agriculture was different from other products because it had a role in preserving the environment, the transformation of land and involved human elements that did enter other sectors.

The Czech Republic said that the issue of export subsidies should be left for decision by the Ministers at Seattle, but felt that other issues like export credits should figure.

India like several other developing countries also did not like bringing the concept of 'multi-functionality', and then went on to stress questions about food security, rural development and poverty.

Hong Kong China objected to what it complained was the 'contagion' of multi-functionality that had now spread from agriculture to services, intellectual property rights and other parts of the draft Seattle text.

In the earlier stage, Hong Kong had assumed that delegations had been joking when they had countering the EC arguments about 'multi-functionality' of agriculture, by references to multi- functionality of other economic sectors. In Hong Kong's view this "casual inclusion" of multi-functionality in other parts of the text was not justified. Hong Kong insisted that these references to multi-functionality should be removed from the text, except in reference to agriculture. Hong Kong questioned the judgement of the secretariat in preparing the revised draft, in not including some proposals though no one had objected, but "peppering" the entire text with multi-functionality.

With the revised draft available on the web pages of a US-based publication (even ahead of its getting into hands of all WTO members), many observers outside have been struck by the way the WTO secretariat has been preparing a draft negotiating text in comparison to other secretariats in other negotiations at this stage.

When sovereign states and governments put forward changes and amendments, in other fora to a draft, all these are incorporated as alternatives in one place, to enable governments to "negotiate". The secretariats themselves at that stage do not intervene.

In the WTO, these outside observers noted, the secretariat draft appears to have reworded some of them, to the point where it even changes the meaning or scope - as in the incorporation of African proposals against 'life-patenting' or the proposals of the like-minded group of developing countries on the four Singapore issues and their formulation for continuation of the study process.

After the informal HOD meet broke up about 10.30 Friday night, Moore convened a meeting of a smaller group of countries to go over the agriculture text. According to some participants it did not make any progress, with the EC maintaining its position. (SUNS4536)

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

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