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REHEARSAL OF TORTUOUS PROCESS AHEAD IN AGRICULTURE TALKS

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 23 Mar 2000 -- A foretaste of the tortuous process ahead at the World Trade Organisation over the mandated negotiations on agriculture came Thursday when, unable to agree on a Chairman for the Committee on Agriculture, the Chairman of the Council for Trade in Goods (CTG) was asked to chair the first Special Session of the Agriculture Committee to begin negotiations.

As a result, the New Zealand ambassador to the WTO, Mr. Roger Farrel, who is the outgoing chair of the CTG, will chair the Special Session of the Agriculture Committee (Thursday afternoon and Friday morning) and start off the negotiations.

The Special Session is to agree on a schedule about the frequency of its future meetings and a work programme. In deciding on the mandated negotiations, the General Council decided at its meeting on 7-8 February, that these will take place at the Special Sessions of the Committee on Agriculture, and that these special sessions will meet back to back with regular sessions of the Committee which normally meets three to four times a year.

But given the deadlock over the choice of a chair, several trade diplomats said they do not expect any decision beyond one setting December 2000 as a deadline for countries putting forward their proposals for the continuance of the reform programme in agriculture. Normally, the Chair is expected to 'consult' to promote consensus before the next session, but the 'interim measure' decided now complicates this.

Farrel himself is due to hand over the chair of the CTG at its first meeting this year (set for 5 April) to Amb. Carlos Perez del Castillo of Uruguay (member of the Cairns group), already chosen by consensus (by the General Council at its 7-8 February meeting) but will be inducted into office only when the CTG meets.

General Council chairman, Amb. Kare Bryn of Norway, in announcing the decision about the Agriculture Committee special session at a press conference, described it as a "painful" one. He however confirmed that the 'slate' of names proposed by him to head the various subordinate bodies under the Goods Council, and which had commanded a large amount of support from the membership, had been blocked by the EC and Japan.

The slate proposed by Bryn included Brazil's Amb. Celso Amorim, who personally commands very high respect among his colleagues, but was vetoed by the European Union and Japan. But with the choice of chairs of the various subordinate bodies linked with each other, the EC veto of the Amorim candidacy for agriculture, meant others too have been blocked.

Bryn held the press briefing, as a result of a Council decision, taken at the request of the EC, which said that this a very sensitive to the EC, and it did not want its views to be 'misrepresented' and so only the chair of the General Council should brief the media (as provided in the rules).

The last time this procedure was invoked was during the election process for a DG, when some objected to the WTO media office briefings. This time, other Council members understood the EC request to mean that it did not want Australia or any other Cairns group member to talk to the media outside. But the Council could only curb the press office or the secretariat briefings, and not the sovereign members, some of whom including the US did talk to the media outside.

And ironically, New Zealand's Farrel, the outgoing CTG Chair was by Bryn's side at the press conference, and intervened to say that the sense of the discussions at the Council was the priority shown by members to the start of the agriculture negotiations, and that it should go ahead as planned.

When the General Council, which met Thursday morning informally to find a solution, and then adopted it at the formal session, the EC came under considerable criticism for blocking Amorim's candidacy on the ground that he came from Brazil, a Cairns group member.

But the EC's Amb. Roderick Abbot made clear that he was acting on instructions and could not agree to the "slate of candidates". The EC insisted that it was "serious" about the agriculture negotiations, and would show this in proposals it would put forward at the committee. The EC proposed that pending further consultations on a consensus candidate, the secretariat or one of the deputy directors-general should be asked to chair the Agriculture Committee, during its negotiating mode.

However, a number of developing countries, including Hong Kong-China and India objected to this, pointing out that this was an 'institutional' issue. They noted that under the rules, if a chairperson could not perform the role of the chair of the committee on agriculture, the committee is to appoint an interim chairperson to perform those functions. And in view of the difficulties in choosing a chair for the agriculture committee, which is a subordinate body to the CTG, the Chair of the CTG should be asked to chair the Special Session, and not any secretariat official.

After some discussions, the General Council agreed to Bryn's proposal that under the present circumstances "as an interim arrangement, the Chairman of the immediate superior body to the Committee on Agriculture, namely the Council for Trade in Goods, chairs the first Special Session of the Committee on Agriculture."

"This arrangement would be without prejudice, of course, to the decision on Chairperson and the Vice-Chairperson," the Council decided. Bryn advised the Council that would continue intense consultations with the aim of settling this question as soon as possible.

At the press conference, Bryn said he did not know what would happen if there be no consensus in the future too on the Agriculture Committee chair to lead the negotiations at the Special Session.

Disagreeing with a questioner that the situation showed the incompetence of the WTO, Bryn said this was an "exaggeration" since other institutions, like the IMF too, faced problems like these.

Bryn hoped this would have no significant impact on the future course of the agriculture negotiations.

Trade diplomats from several countries, who did not want to be identified, later said that the goings-on at the WTO was a strange way of "confidence-building" to improve transparency or democratic decision-making, or for taking measures to improve public image through bringing NGOs into the dispute settlement process or spending money on a PR exercise, or announcing that the WTO was back in business.

Other trade diplomats said the situation about the agriculture negotiations had a bearing on other negotiations.

While Cairns group members have linked (at the last meeting of the Council on Trade in Services) that they expected parallelism in procedures and substance between agriculture and services, other developing countries have indicated similar, but informal, linkages with progress in other mandated negotiations and reviews, as well as on the range of implementation issues raised in the run-up to Seattle.

And in a broader perspective, the EC has been privately arguing that without a comprehensive round of trade negotiations, including on investment and competition issues that would assure EU corporations massive market access through investments in Third World countries, it would be difficult for the EC to make many concessions in agriculture.

But several trade diplomats of developing countries say that the view is growing in their capitals that putting too many issues, including investment, in a basket of issues for a comprehensive round of negotiations, would not produce more benefits for them in agriculture and other traditional goods areas where their exports face tariff and non-tariff barriers, nor could they access those markets through investments (as the EC and US can).

The Uruguay Round, one developing country diplomat noted, had 14 items listed as 'subjects for negotiations' (including non-trade and non-goods sectors like TRIPS, TRIMs and Services). In fact, these 14 items embraced some score or more of issues for rule-making.

This did not produce any balance, of something for everyone at the end, but became so asymmetric and imbalanced that developing countries had now formulated under "implementation issues" specific proposals for each agreement to redress the balance.

There was no benefit to the developing world in terms of market access on agriculture (as originally foreseen) or of textiles and clothing - only a promise for the future, a promise in agriculture of 'change of direction' (in protection and domestic support) and a promise of further negotiations in agriculture (in Art. 20 of the Agreement on Agriculture) for gradual elimination of protection and government support.

But having 'committed' itself to further reforms in agriculture, the EC was now demanding more concessions 'in terms of investment rights for its corporations' to be able to deliver on its commitments in agriculture.

Only the credulous, unfortunately there is no lack of them, could buy the argument that with more items including new areas for negotiations in a new round, the EC would find it easier to give concessions on agriculture.

It is clear that the EC would use all these tactics to gain time to decide for itself (in terms of its own budget etc) what further it should do in relation to its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, and the opening up process to East Europe, and then negotiate with the US to reflect this in a WTO accord, and present it to others on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, as happened at the end of the Uruguay Round.

Some Cairns group members frankly confess in private that they expect serious negotiations only near the end of 2003, the date of expiry for the 'peace clause' protecting the EU (and for that matter, the US too) from disputes over subsidies and support under other WTO rules. (SUNS4633)

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

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