DG, chairs of negotiating bodies on state of play ahead of MC11

The progress reports presented at the 24 October HoD meeting on the various strands of talks taking place leading up to the WTO Ministerial Conference underlined the scale of work needed in the little time remaining to achieve convergence on the outcomes to be delivered at Buenos Aires.

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA: The informal heads of delegation (HoD) meeting held on 24 October, just some seven weeks before the WTO’s eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires, heard an assessment by the WTO Director-General as well as reports by the chairs of the various negotiating bodies under the Doha Work Programmeme on the state of play so far on the key issues in the negotiations.

According to trade officials, in his remarks at the HoD meeting, Director-General Roberto Azevedo recounted the meetings that he had been attending in recent weeks, including the informal ministerial meeting in Marrakesh, a meeting of trade ministers from the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group, the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington (where he met with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer), and meetings with the African Group and the group of Francophone countries.

According to the DG, there is a strong reaffirmation of support for a good outcome at MC11 but there are very difficult issues that remain. In some cases what is seen are divergent positions, and he is hearing a lot of the same things that he has been hearing up to now.

He highlighted the issues that were raised at the Marrakesh meeting in October, including agriculture and its many sub-elements including domestic support, public stockholding programmes for food security, cotton and the special safeguard mechanism (SSM); fisheries subsidies; domestic regulation in services; special and differential treatment (SDT); electronic commerce; micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs); investment facilitation; and women’s empowerment.

According to trade officials, Azevedo also mentioned the WTO dispute settlement system, saying that the current situation is very concerning. Members need to find a way forward, he added.

He said that overall the discussions with the ministers have gone well, but in terms of convergence, it is not very encouraging.

There was a great deal of support at both the Marrakesh and ACP meetings for an MC11 outcome but there is a need to reduce the number of issues that are going to be on the table for ministers to take up in Buenos Aires.

In the very near future, members will have to decide which issues can be brought to MC11 and which have not advanced enough, said the DG.

According to Azevedo, Buenos Aires is not the end of the road. He expressed hope that members can leave Buenos Aires committed to strengthening the trading system and with a clear path forward for work on as many issues as possible.

Chairs’ reports

According to trade officials, the chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules, Ambassador Wayne McCook of Jamaica, reported that there has been significant work done on the three pillars in the rules negotiations.

On fisheries subsidies, the negotiating group had intensified its work during a four-day session. It reflected the strong determination of members to advance outcomes.

It is too early to predict exactly what the scope of this outcome will be but the members have in place at the moment the necessary conditions to bring about an agreement. But political and technical challenges remain.

The chair said that so far the members are not shrinking from these challenges and that there are no linkages or sequencing that has been attached to this, and that has been the key.

When the members meet to take this issue up in the next couple of weeks, there need to be precise and detailed interventions in the form of drafting changes to the “vertical” text on fisheries. It must be a bottom-up approach, the chair said, adding that he cannot provide the substance.

The chair said that the issue of fisheries subsidies is promising for a possible outcome at MC11.

The chair also mentioned the other two pillars of trade remedies (the proposal from China) and horizontal subsidies (the proposal from the EU).

The chair of the services negotiations, Ambassador Hector Marcelo Cima of Argentina, said that so far on the question of trade facilitation in services and on market access, members should not expect a negotiating outcome in Buenos Aires.

According to the chair, on domestic regulation in services, there continues to be quite a lot of energy in these discussions. A “significant” group says that there is enough progress that has been made for a negotiating outcome to be reached but “another sizable” group says that this is not something that can be done.

A large group of proponents will be presenting a revised paper very shortly and this will take into account many of the concerns that have been raised by others. These concerns are linked largely to policy space and the right to regulate.

The chair of the Committee on Trade and Development in Special Session, Ambassador Tan Yee Woan of Singapore, mentioned that the big issue here is the G90’s 10 agreement-specific proposals on SDT.

The opponents have said that the exemptions and open-ended flexibilities would be damaging to the system, so the question is how should the work proceed in the 30 working days before MC11? Are there alternative approaches? Are there any areas of convergence? According to the chair, the answer to that is “no”.

The chair of the NAMA (non-agricultural market access) negotiations, Ambassador Didier Chambovey of Switzerland, said that there has not been a meeting since 21 July. An informal meeting has been called for 1 November.

The chair of the TRIPS Council in Special Session, Ambassador Dacio Castillo of Honduras, raised questions on the role for the TRIPS Council in Special Session in the preparations for MC11. Should there be negotiations on the register of geographical indications of origin for wines and spirits afterwards? He said that the known positions were reiterated and members sensed little appetite for negotiations in this area.

The chair of the Committee on Trade and Environment in Special Session, Ambassador Syed Tauqir Shah of Pakistan, said that a meeting was held on 3 October which was an information session. There have been no new proposals but delegations said that the environment is too important an issue and should not be forgotten in any ministerial declaration.

The chair of the Dispute Settlement Body in Special Session, Ambassador Coly Seck of Senegal, reported that an informal meeting was held on 10 October. There have been no new proposals and there has not really been a push for an outcome at MC11 but there is a desire to continue discussing these issues after MC11 in the current format and members like to take up one issue at a time.

WTO Deputy Director-General Yi Xiaozhun reported on behalf of the chair of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session, Ambassador Stephen Karau of Kenya, who was out of town.

He said that the issue of public stockholding for food security purposes is a priority issue. There are two proposals on the table.

On domestic support, he said this is the priority for the vast majority of members. On cotton, the Cotton-Four (C4) countries have put forward a new proposal and are looking for a high level of ambition.

On agricultural market access, he said that a substantial outcome will not be feasible at MC11, but others would like to continue to take this up after MC11.

On SSM, the proponents have called for an outcome but the prospects are limited because without something in market access, opponents are very reluctant to move on this issue.

On export restrictions, he said many members support a limited outcome on enhancing transparency on export prohibitions and restrictions but others say that this should be seen within the context of a more comprehensive outcome.

According to trade officials, Director-General Azevedo concluded that from what he has heard from members, there is still a long way to go and a short time in which to do this. He urged members to prioritize the issues.

Domestic support priority

Meanwhile, in his report to the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session at its meeting on 19 October, chair Karau had said that domestic support remains the priority for the vast majority of members. It is the pillar that has received a lot of attention in all meetings thus far, as well as in his consultations with members. It was also one of the main issues discussed at the Marrakesh mini-ministerial meeting, he said.

This engagement was reflected again by two more submissions that would be introduced on 19 October: one by the ACP Group and the other by New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Chile and Paraguay.

Nevertheless, important gaps still remain in the positions of members on the negotiating issues. Members remain broadly divided between:

l those that favour an overall limit on trade-distorting support, whether based on a percentage of the value of production or on a monetary ceiling; and

l those that consider that the Aggregate Measurement of Support (AMS) should be eliminated first – notably because it allows for product-specific subsidy concentration – and that at least some steps should be taken in that direction.

In addition, several members consider that efforts should be proportional and the burden should not be put more on some members than on others. They consider that new disciplines based on the current elements – AMS and de minimis – would be more appropriate and caution against a one-size-fits-all type of solution.

While acknowledging the usefulness of the proposal by the EU/Brazil and co-proponents, several members regretted the absence of disciplines on product-specific support and/or immediate disciplines on the Blue Box. Some members reiterated their sensitivities regarding Article 6.2 and de minimis entitlements.

On cotton, Karau noted that the C4 proposal containing a draft ministerial decision on cotton was circulated on 11 October. The proposal received preliminary comments from Quad Plus participants during a brief meeting on 13 October. Some of the members who provided comments regretted the high level of ambition, while others requested the C4 to clarify some elements of the proposal, including the proposed treatment of developing-country members.

On export restrictions, the chair said the discussions thus far have confirmed that many members support a limited outcome, mainly focused on enhancing transparency in export prohibitions and restrictions. It should also be highlighted that most members consider that an outcome on export prohibitions and restrictions could not be envisaged in the absence of a more comprehensive outcome in the agricultural negotiations overall.

On market access, the chair said there is acknowledgement among the members, including the proponents, that a substantive outcome may not be feasible at MC11. Simultaneously, he has not heard any member questioning the importance of market access reforms.

The chair had nothing new to report on export competition.

The chair concluded that a lot of work remained to be done in just the seven weeks available before MC11. He said it was now time to translate the engagement demonstrated in Marrakesh by ministers and the shared willingness to have success at MC11 into concrete actions.

“To prepare the ground for success at MC11, it should be our objective to submit to Ministers a limited number of issues for their consideration. This implies that we need to intensify our work here in Geneva and close as many gaps as possible in the negotiating positions of members on the issues. Experience has taught us that the agenda for Ministers must be manageable if results are to be obtained,” he said.

“Put differently, our objective should be to submit to Ministers a clear understanding of what can be envisaged as agricultural outcomes at MC11, with as few points as possible left open for negotiation by Ministers. Depending on the issue, the envisaged outcome could be a substantive one, a post-MC11 work programme or a combination of the two,” he added. (SUNS8561)               

Third World Economics, Issue No. 649, 16-30 September 2017, pp4-6