TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct11/02)
31 October 2011
Third World Network

WTO General Council Chair reports on MC8 consultations
Published in SUNS #7245 dated 24 October 2011

Geneva, 21 Oct (Kanaga Raja) - The Chair of the General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Friday reported to the membership on the progress in his consultations on the upcoming Eighth WTO Ministerial Conference (MC8) scheduled to take place from 15-17 December 2011.

At an informal meeting of the General Council on Friday morning, just before an informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) taking place later in the afternoon, Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria said that given the very limited time available to members before MC8, "there is a clear need to advance rapidly in our preparations."

Trade officials said that the General Council Chair has had four rounds of consultations so far.

Trade officials also pointed to another track of the process whereby Director-General Pascal Lamy is dealing with the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) issues.

According to trade officials, in a Green Room meeting on 19 October, the Director-General had unveiled the principles, based on his consultations, on which the basic elements have been agreed to by members, namely, that the Doha Round of trade negotiations are at an impasse; that the negotiations would probably not be concluded anytime soon; that there have been a number of reasons why the negotiations have been in difficulty, the economic crisis being a major reason; that members should feel free to try to find agreement in those elements of the Doha package where they can; and that they can come back to the difficult parts later on.

Trade officials said that members are now focusing on areas where agreement is possible as opposed to tackling the most difficult of issues.

With regards to MC8, trade officials highlighted a "matrix" distributed by the General Council Chair to explain how he has gone about his process of consultations. The matrix contains two headings - one is "Ministerial Conference Practices", under which are listed reports for noting, decisions, and political guidance. The other is "Issues", under which the Chair has identified the following: Importance of the Multilateral Trading System (MTS) and WTO; Trade and Development; and DDA.

In his remarks at the informal General Council meeting, the Chair said: "With less than eight weeks remaining before the start of MC8, I would like to recall the overall objective for the Conference. This remains as we defined it at the outset - to produce a successful Ministerial Conference. Of course, definitions of what this would mean in practice might differ. However, we all want a Conference which, despite the current problems in the Round, will help to reinforce the value of the WTO system for all its Members."

Noting that he had just completed a fourth round of consultations, which he started just after the summer break, and building on the agreements members reached at the July General Council on some principles for the work and in particular the "gentleman's agreement", Ambassador Agah said that he has attempted to take members forward by focussing on four questions.

(The "gentlemen's agreement" is that any member pursuing an issue for decision, but not achieving consensus on it six seeks before the Ministerial, which means 2 November, will not insist on putting the item on the Conference agenda.)

Two of these questions concerned organizational matters, said the Chair. First, with respect to attendance of Observers and NGOs at MC8, members have convergence on repeating past practice. For Observers, this means inviting to MC8 those who attended MC7, and for NGOs it means continuing the Secretariat-based procedure members have used since the first MC and which was agreed by the General Council in July 1996.

Second, the Chair said he suggested that members operationalise the two themes they identified earlier in structuring the discussions at the Conference. "In this way we would have a Working Session on each theme, one on the 2nd day and one on the 3rd day of the MC."

"In my consultations, there was convergence on the principle of having two Working Sessions. However, there was also a lack of clarity on the wording of their titles. We will need to come back to this aspect later on in our work," said the Chair.

The Chair said that his next question was aimed at determining whether delegations were testing any concrete proposals on non-DDA issues, or regular work. "From what I heard from both delegations and from the respective Chairs of Subsidiary Bodies, I think we are advancing well along the track of work we have for these, which is based around the existing committee processes."

"My final question was on a possible MC8 output document. A number of those I consulted said we need a Ministerial Declaration, some mentioned a Ministerial Statement, while others believed a summary by the MC Chairman on his own responsibility may be all we can achieve. However, there was a wide acceptance that we can only determine what form the document (or documents) may take once we know what it contains."

In order to take members forward on this question, the Chair said he designed a template aimed at clarifying what they have to do. He had started by asking himself what Ministers are expected to do at a MC. Based on the WTO agreement and past practice, he identified three things which appear at the top of the template. These are: receive reports for noting; take any necessary decisions; and provide political guidance.

On the left-hand side of the template, the Chair said he put the issues. "In my consultations, I heard quite a wide range of views on the issues Ministers might take up. I was concerned that we could end up with an endless list of issues, which would be in direct contradiction to our wish to avoid the ‘Christmas tree' syndrome. So I grouped them into three broad categories: Importance of the Multilateral Trading System and the WTO; Trade and Development; DDA."

In his consultations, it was agreed that these categories are broad enough to accommodate any issue that Members agree should be taken up by Ministers. At this stage, all the boxes in the template are blank, and the aim now is to see how these boxes can be filled in.

For the reports for noting, "we have processes in place so that the Subsidiary Bodies will as usual submit their reports to the GC [General Council]. Proposals for Decisions are now in the hands of the proponents, who have to find consensus on them by 2 November, in line with the ‘gentleman's agreement'. The contents of the boxes under these two headings will thus be determined through these processes."

In the light of this, the Chair said: "there was wide agreement in my consultations that the focus in my process should now turn to the political guidance Ministers will provide. I intend to start by asking Members to identify the core elements an output document would contain in terms of political guidance."

"If we start to see convergence among Members on a number of such core elements, we will try to determine how to harness this convergence and develop it into drafting. Depending on the progress we make in this regard, we could then look at how we could package what we have in a draft outcome document. In this way, we would settle the question of the form of the outcome document," said Ambassador Agah.

The Chair informed the membership that he was already starting his next round of consultations. "I will be soliciting delegations' thoughts on possible elements for Ministers' political guidance under the first two boxes in my template. In this process, I will be looking for incremental, but rapid, progress and I count on the support of all of you..."

The Chair said that in his further consultations, he will also take up the remaining organizational matters, including the Election of Officers for MC8. In addition, he will inform the Council next week that he is holding consultations on the request for observer status at MC8 submitted by Palestine, which was circulated in document WT/L/822.

"I will also inform the Council that a request for observer status as an IGO [intergovernmental organisation] at MC8 has been received from the League of Arab States, which currently does not have observer status in any WTO body. I will propose that we proceed in exactly the same way that we have in the past on any such requests from IGOs. This entails that, unless any objection is received by the Secretariat from any Member by 15 November, the League of Arab States would be granted observer status to MC8."

The Chair also reported that he had been holding consultations on the chairmanships of the negotiating bodies in the areas of Agriculture, Trade and Environment, and Rules.

These consultations have shown a consensus among Members on the appointment of the following Chairs: Special Session of the Committee on Agriculture -- Ambassador John Adank (New Zealand); Special Session of the Committee on Trade and Environment -- Ambassador Hiswani Harun (Malaysia); and Negotiating Group on Rules -- Ambassador Wayne McCook (Jamaica).

[The various Doha Round trade negotiations are conducted at "Special Sessions" of the relevant committees.]

Several delegations spoke following the report by the General Council Chair.

According to trade officials, Thailand said that there is a short time to go before the November 2 deadline (for achieving consensus on issues for decision at MC8). There is need for pragmatism in order to achieve consensus. As a strong supporter of the MTS and its ability to fight protectionism, it would support a statement to keep trade open and to fight protectionism. It would also support a strengthening of the surveillance mechanism.

As a food exporter, Thailand said it supports the European Union's efforts to put in place restrictions on export restrictions that pertain to World Food Programme (WFP) relief efforts. It thought that MC8 should deliver a path towards development for Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

It said that it is in favour of a pragmatic long-term view to support development in these countries. The economic crisis has created challenges that are seen as being outside WTO responsibilities such as currencies and global warming, but members ought to consider how these issues should be addressed in the years to come.

Bangladesh, on behalf of the LDCs, said that time is not on our side. Meeting the November 2 deadline is a challenge. It remained open to any proposals that can add depth and substance to the ministerial conference. It said that it has seen a variety of proposals that have come through. It is working on some now and the details will be sent forward soon. It believed that it is important to have balance and coherence between the three issues that are in the (General Council Chair's) matrix.

In view of the situation in the DDA, Bangladesh said that it would like a clear roadmap for 2012. The Director-General has made some useful contributions in this regard. The LDCs are developing some proposals, one of which will pertain to DDA issues, three concrete deliverables (it did not specify these issues). In addition to this, it would like to put forward a proposal to strengthen and operationalise the LDC accession guidelines.

Kenya, on behalf of the African Group, said that MC8 is not likely to deliver anything tangible for the DDA, not even for the poorest members. It expects that MC8 will need to give some guidance to intensify the efforts in the work programme for 2012 and these should be on the basis of the Easter package of texts, with the highest priorities going to deliverables for LDCs, and the development issues must remain central. It recognised the importance of dealing with issues that are more easily achievable in terms of agreement. It understands as well the importance of Paragraph 47 of the Doha Declaration.

The African Group said that it also has some proposals that it will be putting forward. These include three issues -- one of which will be on trade and development, one on accessions and the other on net food importing developing countries. It appealed to the membership for favourable consideration of these proposals. The development dimension must remain central to the work and rules of the WTO. It would like to see the Committee on Trade and Development play a more central role in WTO activities. It said that on accession, the African countries face challenges due both to substance and procedures. It strongly recommended that African countries - both LDCs and non-LDCs - be able to accede through a process that is far easier.

The European Union said that it supported the Chair's proposals. On the question of trade and development, it said that there are a number of issues that could be considered; some of them are in the DDA that have important development components. Trade facilitation and addressing non-tariff barriers, for example, have strong development dimensions. These are things which not only benefit LDCs but also developing countries of all levels of development.

According to trade officials, the EU said that a signal needs to be sent out at the WTO Ministerial that the membership is prepared to deal with issues that are perhaps not at the moment considered to be WTO issues but which are intersecting with trade regularly. These include climate change, investment, competition, food security, and these should be issues that were topics for discussion if not for negotiation.

In terms of specific proposals, it would like to see that the Trade Policy Review Body (TPRB) mechanism for monitoring the trading system be strengthened. It also supports a proposal from Australia that would enhance the way in which Regional Trade Agreements are inspected in the WTO on the basis of factual reports from the Secretariat, which would enable them to look at cross-cutting issues that affect both market access and regulation.

Hong Kong-China said that there should be some reference to Aid for Trade, and E-commerce and TRIPS non-violation complaints. There is need for consensus on other issues very soon, and that the matrix process was very helpful.

Mauritius, on behalf of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group, said that there were two procedural issues. On the timeframe and deadline (November 2), there were some concerns among ACP countries, because of the fact that these are large groups. They need to have a little more time. It said that it is working closely with the LDC group and the African Group. The coordination can sometimes be complicated.

On the second issue of the vehicle (for MC8), whether it is a Ministerial declaration, or Ministerial statement, or a Chairman's statement issued on his/her responsibility, the ACP said that substance should determine what this vehicle is but at the same time, it wants to make sure that if we are talking about a negotiated document, that sufficient time is devoted to this.

Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the Arab Group, said that it planned to propose to improve guidelines for granting observer status for intergovernmental organisations at the WTO. There is need for clear and objective guidelines.

Switzerland said that it supports the process and the notion of the matrix. MC8 should send signals to the outside world that relate to the capacity of the system to fight protectionism. It supported all efforts to strengthen monitoring and surveillance. With trade and development issues, there is an important role in the formulation of messages here. Is the development dimension the same in 2011 as it was in 2001, it asked. It supported the proposal for the removal of export restrictions on food purchased for humanitarian purposes.

Costa Rica said that it would like to see topics that are considered to be outside of our purview but do directly relate to trade, such as climate change, investment, competition, and transparency in government procurement.