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The ‘Reality Check’ that’s neither real nor a check

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 30 July 2001 - - As the World Trade Organization met at an informal General Council Monday to undertake a ‘reality check’ on the agenda and WTO work programme, as part of the preparations for the Doha Ministerial Conference, expectations about the likely outcome is already being discounted, as the pre-Seattle tactics are being repeated, at least by some.

And judged by his mood at a press conference on Monday afternoon, WTO Director-General Mike Moore seemed quite depressed and pessimistic, that despite his best efforts over the last few weeks and months to lobby countries and groupings, and their capitals, there has not been much movement, and, instead of flexibility, some positions may even have hardened.

Asked when would be the time to decide whether a new round could be launched at Doha or not, Mr. Moore said that the General Council Chair and he had provided a ‘sobering’ assessment for ambassadors to take to their capitals and come back end August or beginning September to say whether there was anything new. And perhaps the Chair and he could work out a paper. But Ministers had made it very clear they did not want to go to Doha with too many issues undecided.

Moore held out the warning again that if there were no negotiations at the WTO next year, there would be regional and bilateral ones, and the smaller economies would be worse off.

However, trade observers noted, for many developing countries and smaller economies, the choice being held out is only the choice of a forum where they could be forced to give ground.

On July 24, the Chairman of the General Council, Mr. Stuart Harbinson had sent out a report, prepared in cooperation with the WTO Director-General Mike Moore on the current state of the preparatory work, providing an overview of the preparations and his assessment of the progress in some individual areas and which in a way gave a somewhat misleading picture.

English language has become the main tool of diplomatic negotiations since the second half of the last century, and not merely because of the dominant or hegemonic power of the US, but because the language enables using the same words to mean different things.

It helps reach accords in difficult areas, and present it in different ways to different audiences. The same word or phrases can have variations of meanings that enable easy disavowals. And governments have developed some skills in agreeing to do something and presenting it differently to their unwary public.  This has been more so in the old GATT and now the WTO.

But these tactics are becoming counter-productive because of the WTO’s new reach into the domestic space and policies of countries, its perceived systemic biases on behalf of large foreign corporations and forcing down on countries policies not practised by the majors themselves.

And in the age of ‘economic globalization’ (which has become another term for 19th century colonial economic relations), and political democratisation and horizontal communications, it is even more difficult to repeat the past. In such an era, the old style manipulative and secretive processes of the GATT and WTO, and concerted efforts to decry and denigrate civil society opposing and defending public interest, as unrepresentative and foreign funded, get easily exposed.

The 24 July Harbinson report spoke of the attention in the preparatory process being focussed on a possible enlargement of the negotiating agenda, of a ‘wide and growing - though not universal - support,’ for enlarging the agenda, about ‘calls’ made in various international fora by a ‘range’ of governments for the launch of a new round at Doha, though ‘others’ have been more cautious, while ‘some’ say they are yet to be convinced.

Presenting in such terms the sharply differing viewpoints inside the membership, the 24 July report presented a warning of sorts that the “failure to arrive at a consensus in the weeks to come on a future agenda for the WTO which advances the objectives of the multilateral trading system could call into question both our approach to decision-making and the value of the WTO as a forum for negotiations.”

Harbinson however seemed to move away from the assessment in an interview with the Wall Street Journal which said in a report Monday that ‘some officials’ are already preparing for the possibility that it might not be possible to launch a new round at Doha. The WSJ in the next para of the report quoted Mr. Harbinson as saying that it is not even useful to talk of a new round. “This is a label that conjures up demons in people’s minds.”

Later in the report, after referring to the Seattle fiasco, and India’s “open hostility” to a new round, and the broad agreement between the US and EC on the agenda for a new round, the WSJ report says that Mr. Harbinson is at pains to deny that if members cannot agree on a new agenda at Doha, then the talks will have collapsed in disarray. “As long as WTO members have the feeling that the organization is moving forward in a way that’s comfortable for all - that’s key for me. To say that not having a round at Doha is considered a failure is a bit too stark.”

At the informal meeting Monday, Director-General Mike Moore spoke of the ‘sobering assessment’ in the report on the volume of work and political commitment needed to at Doha to arrive at an outcome acceptable to all WTO members.

Assuming the role (not found in any provision of the rules-based and member-driven WTO system and its agreements) of “the guardian of the long-term health of the trading system embodied in the WTO”, Mr. Moore said he wanted to be as frank inside the General Council as in public, about his views on the importance of the Doha meeting.

“We cannot pretend that this can be merely a ‘routine’ Ministerial meeting, at which Ministers will discuss general economic trends and progress in the WTO’s built-in agenda,” he said. Some fundamental decisions would have to be taken at Doha, whether positive or negative, “which will have long term implications for the future of this institution and the way we conduct our business,” he said.  This last appeared to be related to the revival of the view of the majors about need for ‘weighted decision-making’, namely a process related to trade and economic weights in the global economy, in which a few could decide and force agendas and decision-making processes on others.

Moore noted that in the joint report, Harbinson and he had said that “failure to reach consensus on a forward work programme that would advance the objectives of the multilateral trading system, particularly in the light of the earlier failure at Seattle, would lead many to question the value of the WTO as a forum for negotiation. It would certainly condemn us to a long period of irrelevance, because it will not be any easier next year, or the year after.”

Told at his press conference that this was “quite an irresponsible statement” for him to make as the head of the organization, Mr. Moore insisted that it was his duty to be frank to friends.

In his statement to the General Council, he said, the questions facing Ministers at Doha would be the same as at Seattle: “are they ready to launch a wider process of negotiations - a new round, in fact - and if so what should its content be.”

“I have made no secret of my conviction that a new round is necessary,” he said.  “There is no better way in which we can effectively address the problems of economic slowdown or prevent the further marginalization of many developing countries through the weakening of the multilateral system. There is no other way in which we can make sure that the legal system embodied in the WTO responds to economic reality. There is no other way in which we can sustain the momentum of the negotiations on agriculture and services. Nowhere in the world, as far as I know, is the need for negotiation on agriculture disputed; but nowhere else in the world, if not here, is that negotiation going to happen.”

Mr. Moore also insisted that all the rules in this system had been “negotiated” - and that was their “strength and the source of their legitimacy.” They could only be changed by negotiation.

He noted that Minister Simba of Tanzania spoke recently about inequities in the system, “and he is right - they exist”

“But only negotiation can remove them. Not to negotiate means accepting the status quo, which was yesterday’s compromise. ... opting for the status quo will not stop further trade negotiations next year. They would take place, but outside the WTO, with those not included bearing the cost of exclusion.”

In his oral remarks, Mr Stuart Harbinson, said that the assessment of the present situation could not but be a sobering one. “Gaps among key positions remain wide on a number of issues, not least of which on the outstanding implementation-related issues and concerns.”

It was not simply the extent of the outstanding differences in position that was “worrying”, but the apparently “entrenched nature of those differences at this stage.” There is an urgent necessity now to begin to narrow these gaps in the very short time available. While the task of bridging the substantial gaps faced in a very short time was difficult and complex, “ it is not impossible given two essential conditions: a strengthening of the political will to find consensus solutions and the conversion of that political will into negotiated outcomes.

It was imperative that this be achieved in some of the more critical areas at an early enough opportunity, and in ways that would allow a package to be pulled together. We are quickly approaching the time where the encouraging signs of flexibility and willingness to engage displayed recently must be translated into more concrete terms.”

Trade diplomats said midway through the meeting Monday that in many ways the positions seemed to have hardened.

Some developing country diplomats said that the Europeans in several consultations (and Mr. Pascal Lamy in some press interviews) had been describing developing countries raising “very complicated questions in existing agreements” as implementation questions needing solutions as “posturing.” However, they said, the EC and others insisting on a new round with new issues were in fact posturing to avoid having to negotiate on agriculture. – SUNS4947

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

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