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Doha process starts, stumbles over Plan A, B (or C)

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 4 May 2001 - - The preparations for the Doha Ministerial meeting, kicked off with the first informal plenary consultations by the chairman, Mr. Stuart Harbinson, have begun on a note where everyone is showing respect to the positions of others, and all delegations recognize that achieving an outcome at Doha, where every one can walk away from it with something is very important, the WTO spokesman, Mr. Keith Rockwell said Thursday after two sittings of the informal General Council.

The meeting heard the views of some 30-40 speakers, both individual country representatives and others representing groups of them, on a six-point check-list of issues (see SUNS #4888 for the details of the checklist) that had been prepared and circulated to delegations by Mr. Harbinson.

While still taking a cautious view on whether or not a new round of negotiations would be launched at Doha, Rockwell and other trade officials underscored the contrast in the atmosphere and tensions that had surrounded the Seattle preparatory process (in 1999) and the present process.

There was much talk Thursday about Plan A (a Ministerial meeting launching a new round, and with new issues) or Plan B (a normal Ministerial meeting, but with no decision on a new round). The intention would appear to be not to be caught up in the same unplanned way as at Seattle, where the meeting ended in chaos, with neither the secretariat nor the chair, the USTR Mrs. Charlene Barshefsky, having prepared themselves for at least a procedural outcome (as in several past failed trade meetings).

But the way that the Plan A or Plan B was being mentioned, provoked the Pakistan ambassador, Mr. Munir Akram to remark, half-humourously, but seriously too, that Plan A of some may be Plan B of others, and some others could be having a Plan C or D, but that for Pakistan and several other developing countries implementation was a very high priority and an issue to be resolved before Doha, and the outcome would have a bearing on the ministerial itself.

The indication of the minefields ahead for the Doha preparatory process and the meeting itself, came at the end, when Mr. Harbinson announced his schedule of further consultations - that seemed to ignore the views of several of the key developing country delegations, and scheduled one meeting next week for the first item about discussion of current issues, and another on the 15th to take up the fourth point of his checklist (the Singapore subjects and other possible subjects).

The suggestion that the second and third points on the checklist (Implementation and Ongoing negotiations and Reviews) are already being considered separately, and should not occupy the time of the preparatory process now, but that they should straightaway plunge into the discussion of investment and competition policy and some other possible subjects came from Japan and Korea at the outset, and later received the direct or oblique support of two or three others.

But a number of key developing countries, including Pakistan, India and the African Group had spoken against it, insisting that there could be no hierarchy of issues listed in the Geneva Ministerial Declaration and followed in the checklist, and the items should be taken in the order.

The implementation issues, they contended, in fact needed to be taken up and decided on a priority, since decisions on these had to be reached before Doha.  And though the agriculture, services and reviews (including of TRIPs) was taking place in subordinate bodies or negotiating groups, it was necessary for the ministers to address them and provide guidelines on the mandate.

As an example was cited the issue of agriculture negotiations - whether they should be only in terms of Art.20 of the Agreement (as being insisted upon by the EC, Japan and Korea and other agriculture protectionist countries) or a bigger mandate should be provided by the Ministers at Doha.

Similarly, on TRIPS, the issue of negotiations on geographical indications of origin had to be addressed, as also the question of TRIPs and Health Issues.

But Mr. Harbinson persisted with his schedule, agreeing only that the chairman, in consultation with the Director-General will issue next week a schedule of meetings in respect of the other items on the checklist.

Clearly, the trade officials, and the industrialized nations, are hoping that the OECD Ministerial meetings in Paris next week, will provide an impetus to move the WTO negotiations forward, with the US being able to join the EC and Japan and Canada to push the developing world - as had happened before Punta del Este.

Some of the secretariat and delegation scenarios of Plan A or Plan B appear to be based on a reading or misreading of the preparations and events leading to Punta del Este (1986) and other such events.

The EC also seems to believe that it would be able to use the UN Least Developed Countries Conference in Brussels (14-20 May) and its ‘Everything But Arms’ Initiative to win over the LDCs, and show larger number of delegations supporting the call for a new round.

The EC is presenting the LDCs with the view that while it could unilaterally open its markets through preferences, they could be bound in the WTO only by a new round.

The views of UNCTAD Secretary-General, Mr. Rubens Ricupero, on Thursday in a talk with the media, that the preferential access offered by the EC need to be negotiated and bound at the WTO, to provide security and attract investment, lent some support for this view.

However as several NGOs who are campaigning against a new round have been pointing out, the EU does not need any negotiations to enter the concessions and bind them at the WTO. What the EC was trying to do was a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, taking away some of the advantages enjoyed by one group of countries (the ACP) to give concessions to the LDCs (most of whom are members of the ACP), and then use this to gain advantage from other developing countries through investment and competition policy rules or other market access concession in goods and services.

Whether this strategy will work or create further problems for the WTO trading system, and those in the UN and IMF and World Bank backing it or keeping quiet over it, remains to be seen.

As Brazil reminded the General Council in the implementation discussions, the WTO was faced with a crisis of legitimacy, where civil society in developing countries (irrespective of views of governments), see that the system has brought them no benefits.

Other writings by academics from prestigious business schools, in prestigious journals like Foreign Affairs, ILO studies and writings in even conservative media like the London Economist, have begun to highlight that ‘trade liberalisation’ as such is only creating more inequalities among and within countries, and the policy advices to developing countries need to be re-thought.

In opening the meeting, Mr. Harbinson indicated that the purpose of his checklist was “to provide a broad framework, flexible enough to accommodate future, more focussed discussions, not to reflect all the aspirations of Members”; that it was not “intended to be exhaustive”, but focussing on possible substantive elements of the Doha agenda, that it was “intended to be neutral, and does not prejudge any Member’s position” with regard to the further programme or future negotiations at the WTO; and that the checklist should not be seen as an outline of a possible declaration, and the shape of this would only be discernible after thorough discussion of all relevant issues. He did not see any purpose being served by refining the checklist, but sought general views of members on all the items there.

Trade officials, trying to lead or guide media reports, suggested that the checklist had been well-received, but that there were differences of views on emphasis, that ‘implementation’ issues were the primary ones for some delegations, while for others these were being addressed in special GC sessions, and the preparatory process should focus on others.

The officials conceded that there was disagreement on the ‘Singapore subjects’ (investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation) and whether they were ripe for discussions (at Doha) and negotiations, or should they continue to be in the education process.

Uruguay, which took the floor first, said that the credibility of the WTO was at stake, and members should adjust their hopes to what was possible - Plan A, the launching of a new round with subjects of interest to all, and Plan B, evaluation by Ministers of the work done on implementation and other issues, and a new round being left for launching at the next ministerial (after Doha) or the one after. Each member should clearly set out its negotiating objective. On Agriculture, the Cairns group did not want a mere reference to Art. 20 of the AoA, but more ambitious objectives of reform.

Japan argued that the subject of current issues should be taken up nearer the Doha meeting, that implementation and ongoing negotiations and reviews were being handled in separate bodies, and hence the preparations should move on to the Singapore subjects and other issues.

This view got support from Korea which saw the Doha meeting objective as the launching of a new round, and members should be flexible and pragmatic. The view that by July, it should be clear whether Doha would be a meeting to launch new negotiations or only to make assessments, was viewed by Korea not as a deadline but as a benchmark.

Speaking for the CEPTA and some other East Europeans, Romania did not favour any hierarchy of issues among the points listed in the checklist, and sought an inclusive consultation process. Members should decide between Plan A or Plan B at Doha by July, and the Chair should draw up a plan for consultations. Much would depend on issues under item four, and consultations must take place on “what the market could bear”.

Singapore said that market access for non-agricultural products was an item that must figure on the Doha agenda. As for the Singapore subjects, proponents should gather enough support and bring the issue on the agenda formally.

Speaking for the LDCs, Tanzania complained that though the issues relating to LDCs were in the Geneva Ministerial Declaration, there was no mention of it in the checklist. The situation and position of LDCs had to be taken into account.  Implementation was not a separate track, but a part of the Doha process. And the LDCs did not want to start the process on the premise of a new round. Unlike at Seattle, all delegations should be involved in the consultations. Speaking for the African group, Mauritius called for Doha to consider the issues of TRIPs and essential drugs at affordable prices. Implementation issues should be resolved before the ministerial.

New Zealand asked investment and competition issues to be approached with realism, But with New Zealand having already signed a free trade agreement with Singapore, providing for investment rules, and negotiating another with Hong Kong, but under considerable secrecy from its public - and with both now beginning to attract considerable domestic opposition, it was not clear what the New Zealand position actually means.

Nigeria called for inclusive and intensive consultations.

India insisted that the checklist should not be a vehicle for launching a new round. The ministerial agenda should include references to the TRIPs and Health Issue, while the item 3 (ongoing negotiations and reviews) should have a reference to the negotiations on geographical indications of origin (a subject where Marrakesh contemplated negotiations being taken up and concluded by now, but where the US and a few others have been holding up any negotiations).

As for implementation, India was concerned by remarks that it was on another track, and over the efforts to reduce the checklist to consideration of item 4 (Singapore subjects and other new issues). For India, implementation was very important and by Doha this issue should be resolved.

Paraguay, speaking also for the Mercosur, Bolivia and Chile, said the Doha agenda would depend on the progress on implementation issues. Paraguay also underscored the importance it attached to the Special and Differential treatment issue. At other meetings, Paraguay has been critical of the 1979 Enabling Clause (allowing for preferences for developing countries or among them) and the way it has been misused.

Argentina said they should have a clear idea by July of the items on the Doha agenda. Argentina supported India and the Africans on bringing up for Doha the TRIPS and Health issues.

Pakistan endorsed the checklist approach, but underscored that it was structured on the para nine of the Geneva Ministerial Declaration. Under the first item about current issues, the Doha ministerial must consider and provide an assessment of the impact of the Uruguay Round on the developing countries.  Implementation might be on a separate track, “but it is not a side-track”, the Pakistani ambassador warned. The progress on implementation issues would determine whether progress would be made elsewhere. Under the ‘reviews’, the TRIPS and TRIMS agreements need to be looked into from the viewpoint of the ‘development dimension’. Pakistan also cited four criteria that had been agreed upon before Singapore for bringing any new issue before the WTO: is it trade related, would the inclusion of the issue lead to mutuality of benefits, is it ripe for negotiations and (if all three are satisfied) any new issue should be formally proposed.

The Dominican Republic said the checklist should be the starting point. Doha should address the health and TRIPs issues and the impact of the Uruguay Round on developing countries. Without movement on implementation, it would be very difficult for the Dominican Republic to consider any issue outside the WTO’s built-in agenda It was also necessary to bring up the S&D issue, as well as the issue of movement of natural persons for services, the mode 4 of GATS.

Costa Rica supported consultations being held immediately on the item four issues, and progress on these would make it possible to make progress on implementation.

The EU spoke of the collective responsibility of the members to make Doha a success, and the WTO should not be allowed to be run by the regional agreements.  The only way to enable a judgement to be made on any issue was by dialogue at the General Council.

Brazil saw July to be an important point to decide about Doha, and by then consensus should be achieved. Consultations could help determine what type or course of action should be taken on the road to Doha. But the Development Dimension needs to be addressed in the work programme. For Brazil, agriculture was extremely important, and so were the WTO rules on antidumping, subsidies - whether these were addressed as implementation issues or separately.

Brazil also supported Doha considering TRIPS and Health issues.

Canada saw the checklist as a useful basis for work. Switzerland wanted investment, competition issues and geographical indications to figure in the Doha list.

Egypt considered it important to respect the order and hierarchy set by the Geneva Ministerial Declaration. The Doha preparations should not be seen as preparations for a new round. Issues should be included only on the basis of a consensus.

The United States supported a successful launch of a new round at Doha. But for a successful outcome, it was essential for members to show candour with respect to ambitions and limitations of any agenda. There was need for flexibility to

get results. The US perceived some positive spirit in the discussions At the end of the discussions, Harbinson said he would hold a consultation on 10th on the first item, and then on the 15th for the fourth item. This provoked further round of discussions, and some hard exchanges too, with Pakistan, India and others insisting that there should be no attempt to give priority to the Singapore and other new issues.

One developing country diplomat later said that while the discussions had begun on a conciliatory note, it had ended up badly, with indications that chairman Harbinson and the DG might push for a new round with investment and other issues.

However, Hong Kong China in its own interventions had said that it had some problems with some of the Singapore subjects, but did not elaborate. – SUNS4889

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

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