TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Apr11/06)
29 April 2011
Third World Network

Still no solutions to outstanding issues, says Chair
Published in SUNS #7133 dated 19 April 2011

Geneva, 18 Apr (Kanaga Raja) -- The Chair of the agriculture negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) has reported to the membership that he has not seen any solutions as yet to any of the outstanding issues through his two weeks' of consultations.

These conclusions came at an open-ended informal meeting of the Special Session of the Agriculture Committee on 15 April, which closed the latest round of talks just before the Chair, Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, issues his "document" on the agriculture negotiations on 21 April, just before the Easter break on 22-25 April.

Early last week, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy had informed delegations in a fax that the Chairs of the Negotiating Groups will be circulating "documents" on 21 April, which he said represent "the product of the work in their Negotiating Groups".

The WTO head had also told delegations that he would be convening an informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) on 29 April, the purpose of which he said is "to give delegations the opportunity to consider next steps." (See SUNS #7131 dated 15 April 2011.)

According to trade officials, Ambassador Walker's "contribution" to the "Easter process" will take as its basis the December 2008 draft modalities text and the discussions undertaken since then.

[Meanwhile, trade ministers from the BRICS countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and new member South Africa - in a media statement on the eve of their summit last week in China, had said that the "delicate balance of the trade-offs achieved over 10 years of negotiations and contained in the draft July 2008 texts risks being upset."

[Media reports cited the BRICS countries as stressing that their Ministers "remain willing to conclude the round on the basis of those (July 2008) draft modalities."]

According to trade officials, at the informal meeting on 15 April, Ambassador Walker did not mention how he would convey to the membership (on 21 April) the lack of constructive, bridge-building solutions to the deadlocked issues, but said that Members should not expect any surprises from him.

The Chair reiterated that the process is entirely bottom-up - with input coming only from the Members themselves - and that his and some delegations' reports on their consultations indicated that the work they have been undertaking has not yet produced solutions, said trade officials. This includes neutral work on clarifying ambiguities in the present draft as well as negotiations over substance, they added.

"My own conclusion from those [the Chair's] consultations is that as yet I have not seen any solution to any of those outstanding issues having been presented through those consultations. Nor have I seen any clearly defined further option on those issues at the present time," the Chair told the informal meeting.

According to trade officials, the Chair added: "I am aware that people continue to work constructively on a number of those issues in order to identify possible options for bridge-building, problem-solving solutions, but as I say none of that has visibly appeared, yet."

Following the informal TNC meeting on 29 April, Ambassador Walker said that he will consult with the agriculture negotiating group on the next steps, based on any guidance emanating from that TNC meeting.

"I think we have done a lot of good work, and we continue to do a lot of good work," the Chair said. "It seems to me that perhaps it's a little bit like some agricultural products: they germinate away under the ground and all of a sudden they spring forth, and if the weather is right, they will bloom and grow."

Ambassador Walker added: "So I'm looking forward to that phase of our work as soon as it can be reached. And meanwhile, you'll be able to read and study, I'm sure, my document on the 21st, and I will look forward to working with you after Easter from that point."

According to trade officials, the Chair also reported on his "Room E" consultations involving some 38 delegations. He said that delegations went through the December 2008 draft modalities text, but produced no new solutions to the remaining blocked issues.

Trade officials said that the Philippines submitted a new proposal in the consultations on the special safeguard mechanism (SSM) for developing countries with low bound maximum tariff rates on agricultural products.

According to trade officials, the Philippines, in its proposal which was also introduced at the open-ended informal meeting on 15 April, defines countries with low bound tariff rates as those whose bindings average 40% or less. According to the Philippines, these countries face volatile prices and import quantities.

Trade officials said that the Philippines is seeking extra flexibility so that these countries can raise tariffs as a safeguard - a temporary measure to deal with price falls or import surges - more than currently prescribed in the draft modalities text.

At the open-ended informal meeting, Barbados, representing the small and vulnerable economies (SVEs), supported the Philippines' proposal, added trade officials.

The Chair said that the proposal was discussed in the Room E meeting, "but as yet, no conclusions [have been] drawn."

Meanwhile, according to trade officials, Cuba said that it has made progress in its consultations with some Members on its call for special provisions to allow it longer repayment periods for export credits due to its special circumstances, particularly the US embargo on the country. It asked for this to be recorded in what the Chair is about to write (for 21 April).

Trade officials also said that Norway, India and the European Union reported on meetings that they had organized with groups of Members on the issue of value-of-production data, and on clarifying ambiguous or unclear parts of the draft text on domestic support and market access.

The three Members said that work on the data has progressed but (more) time will be needed, for example, for countries to verify each other's data. The work on clarification, which is neutral on the level of ambition and is not a negotiation, has not yet reached the stage where the results can be shared with the full membership, they added.

Meanwhile, at an open-ended informal meeting on 5 April that opened the two weeks of agriculture negotiations, a new paper was tabled by the net food-importing developing countries (NFIDCs) that proposes new rules to enable these countries and the least-developed countries (LDCs) to import food from countries that generally restrict exports, said trade officials.

The net food-importing developing countries are: Barbados, Botswana, Cote d'Ivoire, Cuba, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Honduras, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Mauritius, Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Peru, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, and Venezuela.

According to trade officials, Egypt introduced the group's paper, which says that food prices hit a new record high in February, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, driven mostly by higher prices of cereals, meat and dairy products.

"The impact of soaring food prices has been most severe on NFIDCs and LDCs, especially as their share of food purchases in their total expenditures is much higher than that of industrialized countries," the group said.

It added: "Estimates of those who fall into, and move out of, poverty as a result of price rises since June 2010 show there is a net increase in extreme poverty of about 44 million people in low and middle-income countries. NFIDCs food import bills have significantly increased from 2009 to 2010."

According to trade officials, the group noted that at the start of 2011, 21 countries had export controls in place, which it said complicates the flow of humanitarian food.

Trade officials said that the group proposed revised texts for the December 2008 draft modalities in agriculture including: "Where a non-NFIDC Member institutes a new export prohibition or restriction on foodstuffs in accordance with paragraph 2(a) of Article XI of GATT 1994, that Member shall not apply that prohibition or restriction on exports of foodstuffs to NFIDCs and LDCs."

Expressing concern over the effect of export restrictions on humanitarian food operations, the group proposed text that said: "Members shall not apply export prohibitions or restrictions to the procurement and transportation of foodstuffs by the relevant United Nations multilateral agencies so they may undertake their humanitarian operations."

According to trade officials, the group also proposed other modifications to the draft text, including provisions on monitoring.

Trade officials said that Members expressed broad sympathy with the group's situation but said that they would have to study the proposal carefully.

Some Members, such as the Philippines, said that they have also been affected by export restrictions even though they are not in the NFIDC group.

According to trade officials, Australia, Brazil, the Philippines and the US said that other issues should also be taken into account. They further blamed distorting subsidies and import barriers for the price volatility, added trade officials.

Japan, Switzerland and the EU welcomed the increased discussion, trade officials further said. +