by Martin Khor

Seattle, 2 Dec 99 -- Discussions on "new issues" started this afternoon at the WTO Ministerial meeting, with countries reportedly sticking to their former positions on investment and competition policy.

The discussions took place at the working group on "Singapore Agenda and Other Issues", which as officially announced at the beginning of the meeting here, is chaired by the New Zealand minister.

But an indication of the chaotic arrangements and confusion under which the media and the WTO's own media office is working was provided late Wednesday night (about 2200 hours) in a media advisory left on tables that identified the Lesotho minister as having chaired both the working groups on market access and on Singapore items and other issues. It was not possible at that hour to get clarification as to whether there had been a switch, or just a mix-up in the advisory. But earlier in the evening, some delegates had identified the chair as "the New Zealander", though they too could have been mistaken.

Several delegations called for negotiations on agreements for investment and competition policy to be launched at the Seattle meeting. But many other countries said the issues were not yet ripe for negotiations and that further study and analysis of these issues should continue in the Working Groups on investment and competition.

The contrasting positions voiced were very similar to those expressed in the WTO in Geneva over the past year. Thus the polarization of views, with the EC leading the push for the negotiating mode towards new agreements on one side, and developing countries in the Like Minded Group opposing negotiations and instead proposing that the two Working Groups continue their study process.

The meeting concluded with the Chairman urging Members to move forward, and that this must be credible and not merely an effort to save face.

The Chairman also urged delegations to find a "bridge" to their positions.

The Chair had also earlier alluded to this when, opening the session, he asked whether Members could agree to start negotiations on investment and competition policy; and if they could not, then could they agree to develop elements that might eventually be incorporated in agreements on investment and competition and return later to the question of whether or not to undertake negotiations at the Fourth Ministerial.

On Wednesday morning, the working group on market access (chaired by Lesotho) also met. The group discussed several areas that are unresolved, including the coverage and scope of negotiations (whether all industrial products should be covered or if some could be excluded); the overall objective; non-tariff measures such as anti-dumping, customs valuation; and developing countries' concerns.

In the working group on implementation and rules, chaired by Canadian Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew, developing countries reiterated demands for Ministerial action on implementation issues. Many called for action regarding difficulty in implementing some WTO agreements and asked for extension of deadlines in TRIPS, TRIMs and customs valuation. They also spoke about imbalances in Agreements and asked for changes to the Anti-Dumping, Subsidies and Textiles agreements.

A new draft on implementation was circulated, which provides for immediate decisions on some items and leaving other issues to be considered after Seattle.

In the agriculture working group chaired by Singapore Minister George Yeo, a new draft was discussed which dealt with the objectives of negotiations, provisions for developing countries, further reductions in subsidies and protection, "multifunctionality" or non-trade objectives, and a timetable for the negotiations.

One group of Members wanted the complete integration of agriculture into the same rules as other products, total elimination of export subsidies, and only providing support for non-trade objectives through policies that do not distort trade, and substantial increases in market access.

Another group stated that agriculture is different from other sectors and should not be integrated into the same disciplines as other products. They could not accept eliminating export subsidies and stressed the need for "multifunctionality." (SUNS4565)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.

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

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