TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (June09/13)
29 June 2009
Third World Network

Agriculture talks return to the "multilateral" process
Published in SUNS #6724 dated 22 June 2009

Geneva, 19 Jun (Kanaga Raja) -- The Chair of the agriculture negotiations at the WTO announced on Thursday that the negotiations will be returning to the multilateral process, beginning with a session scheduled for end June involving some 20-30 delegations representing all key players and coalitions.

Trade officials said that the return to the process involving all members reflects the members' wish to see the negotiations pick up momentum in preparation for intensive negotiations in the autumn, and follows from a lull since the former Chair Ambassador Crawford Falconer's circulation of his draft modalities text in December 2008.

(Some low-key consultations and two meetings had been held since the release of the draft text.)

At an informal meeting of the Special Session of the Agriculture Committee Thursday, Chairman Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand informed the membership that he was about to complete the exploratory consultations that he has held with individual delegations and representatives of groupings since his election to the Chairmanship on 22 April.

He outlined a schedule for the next few weeks based on those consultations.

According to trade officials, the Chair described as "very much music to my ears", members' statements made during the informal meeting that they want the negotiations to move forward and to close the gaps in positions that remain.

The next step in the "multilateral" process after Thursday's informal meeting will be a session with a smaller number of delegations representing all key players and groupings (usually involving some 20-30 delegations in Room E of the WTO) in the week of 29 June to 3 July.

After that, said Ambassador Walker, he would hold consultations in various formats in July, culminating in another informal meeting of the full membership just before the summer break (August and early September.)

The Chair explained that these meetings will help to clarify members' views on which issues are political, which are technical, and which are political but would benefit from some technical work. He said that it would be up to members to decide that - he would not decide "exogenously".

Ambassador Walker further said that he would be organizing a technical workshop to consider the type of information that members would need to supply when they spell out their specific commitments. The Chair stressed that he was looking for the "type" of information and not the information itself. The workshop would be organized some time in July (see below).

(According to trade officials, the purpose of the workshop would be to identify what data are needed for each of the items in the modalities, but not the actual data, or even the products they would apply to.)

At the informal meeting, several members such as the EU, the G10 (Switzerland speaking) and the US said that there is need to conclude the Doha Round quickly in order to help ease the current global economic crisis. The EU said that this would also boost the WTO as a "bulwark against protectionism".

According to trade officials, several members welcomed the recent commitment by the Cairns Group ministers and their guests US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and new Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma to conclude the Doha Round through both political and technical efforts.

Most speakers said that the draft modalities text of December 2008 should be the basis for concluding the Doha Round because it reflects many years of negotiations and converging positions. Many also reiterated that the negotiations have to be "multilateral", transparent and inclusive.

Some countries identified their priorities for the next steps. Argentina said that the package cannot be considered closed because some issues remain, and the agreement to strike a balance between agriculture and non-agricultural market access (paragraph 24 of the 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration) has to be respected. It identified a number of areas where available information, including required notifications, is out-of-date .

Other issues that were raised at the informal meeting included preference erosion and tropical products.

Brazil, speaking on behalf of the G20, noting that members are at the final stage of the agriculture negotiations, said: "We deem it fundamental to resume the Geneva process under your leadership before the summer break. Technical work on open issues of the December 2008 Agriculture draft modalities text should resume in order to close the remaining gaps in the text and to prepare it for the final political decision."

The Group highlighted five essential principles that need to be taken into consideration at this final stage:

-- The December 2008 draft modalities are the basis for resuming negotiations and represent the end-game in terms of the landing zones. The draft modalities text embodies the outcome of a seven-year negotiating process. Marginal adjustments to the package have to be seen in the context of the overall balance of trade-offs, taking into consideration that Agriculture is the engine of the Round;

-- "We cannot accept a selective reopening of the package". If one area is reopened, other areas will also be reopened, until re-balanced, in a horizontal give-and-take negotiation;

-- "We reject the notion that any member is worse-off in this negotiation". Over the last seven years, every member negotiated, made concessions and trade-offs. Every member feels that it has given more than it could and has gotten less than it should;

-- The development dimension remains crucial to the negotiations. S&D (special and differential treatment) applies to all developing countries and they will not renegotiate flexibilities achieved so far. These flexibilities represent trade-offs already incorporated in the modalities texts;

-- The negotiating process must remain multilateral.

According to trade officials, Indonesia, speaking for the G33, said that the basis of the negotiations must be the December 2008 text, as it reflects progress built up over the years. The process should not be reversed. We should not jump to schedules, said Indonesia.

[The mention of not jumping to "schedules" is seen as a response of sorts to the reported view of the US, under the Barack Obama administration, of getting around the impasse (in July 2008) over modalities, by key countries scheduling or indicating under individual tariff lines how they would schedule. Variations of this have been reportedly talked about, including so-called "outcome testing" by the WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, according to several media reports.]

The process has to be multilateral, transparent, inclusive and bottom-up. This is a development round and flexibilities for developing countries are integral, said Indonesia.

Tanzania, speaking on behalf of the Least Developed Countries, said that the delay in concluding the Doha Round is hurting the LDCs. It called for an "early harvest" in some issues, including duty-free/quota-free market access for LDC products and cotton.

The US said that all members should contribute - it requires new commitments and not simply lock in what they have already done. The US suggested some areas of technical work.

According to trade officials, although most members were willing to accept the technical workshop, some said that they opposed using the discussion to do more than its basic objective, and a few specifically opposed jumping straight to supplying the data itself before "modalities" are agreed.

Ambassador Walker said that members would be free to discuss bilaterally or plurilaterally some form of "outcome testing", as described by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy at a meeting of the General Council on 26 May.

The Chair however stressed that this would not be part of the agriculture negotiations, which he chairs. "That is not a process that is of relevance to me," he said.

(The Chair was referring to a suggestion made by Lamy for work along "two simultaneous tracks", one on modalities in agriculture and non-agriculture market access, and another for commencing the scheduling exercise in both these areas.

(The Director-General's proposal for the two-track approach was in a statement he made at the General Council in his capacity as Chair of the Trade Negotiations Committee. Lamy had said: "I am well aware that for some of you, the modalities approach is sacrosanct. It is an approach that makes clear to all what is on the table through the formula cuts in tariffs and the specific flexibilities that would be agreed. But others believe that while the modalities spell out the defensive elements of the agreement, through flexibilities, these flexibilities in themselves make it difficult to ascertain what new market access opportunities may emerge. If governments could indicate what products would be accorded more flexible treatment in the scheduling stage, whether on sensitive products, on special products, on Duty-Free-Quota-Free or on NAMA flexibilities, some countries believe it would lend greater clarity to the process."

(Lamy added: "My own sense is that there is scope to work on these two areas along two simultaneous tracks. One would see technical engagement in the negotiating groups move to a higher gear to cover a number of technical issues as mentioned previously. Simultaneously, Members would start some sort of 'outcome testing', through bilateral or plurilateral discussions, where they would provide each other with greater clarity on the use of flexibilities and through it, on the value of the deal.")

According to trade officials, at the informal meeting, those that opposed a jump to scheduling included the LDCs, the ACP Group, the G33, and the African Group.

Speaking to journalists after the informal meeting, Ambassador Roberto Azevedo of Brazil said that when the Chair had mentioned a seminar on scheduling, there was doubt among different countries on what that meant.

The Chair then clarified that what he was going to talk about was a template, and that it would not be a country-specific discussion where people would say what they would put in the schedule. It is just a discussion on what type of information should be in the schedule.

"Of course, the disciplines after this round, if it is ever concluded, will be different from the Uruguay Round disciplines," said the Brazilian envoy, noting that there would be product-specific caps, a new Blue Box and a number of other new elements that somehow would have to show up in the schedule.

So, the schedules will have to change, they will have to look different, he said, adding: "I think the idea is that the seminar would discuss precisely the shape of the schedule, rather than what would be in it from each country."

A number of delegations were concerned that the seminar would be an opportunity for discussion on country-specific commitments. Those delegations were not ready for that. They were still looking for the conclusion of the modalities first before moving on to the scheduling phase, said Ambassador Azevedo.

Speaking to journalists after the informal meeting, Ambassador Walker said that he would be organizing some consultations among various delegations on the outstanding issues, and that he would engage in that process through July. In respect of the outstanding issues, he mentioned the Special Safeguard Mechanism, market access across tariff structures, tariff simplification, and technical issues around the support pillar.

[Another outstanding issue, the last item in the points that Mr. Lamy formulated at the July 2008 mini-ministerial, is the cotton issue - where some trade diplomats and observers note that the US has even less flexibility than before.]

Asked about the debate in the meeting surrounding the issue of moving to scheduling, the Chair said that members were talking about the technical work that needs to be done in the upcoming weeks as part of the work on modalities. "I wasn't talking about any other types of activities which are not part of my process."

"I'm not talking about scheduling. I do intend to have some discussions in July, very technical discussions about templates, not about schedules, but about templates of the types of information that flow from the modalities and how that would need to be ultimately presented. But this is very much a technical discussion and simply focused on templates, not a discussion of potential content which is something different," the Chair explained. +