Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct15/08)
Geneva, 2 Oct (Chakravarthi Raghavan and D. Ravi Kanth) With barely ten weeks left for the World Trade Organization's 10th Ministerial Conference at Nairobi, Director-General Roberto Azevedo appears to be engaged in promoting the ideas of the United States and the European Union to end the Doha Development Agenda trade negotiations and their obligations and commitments under the Marrakesh Treaty.
This was the uneasy feeling left by him among an overwhelming number of developing country envoys after his hurriedly summoned "green room" meeting on Thursday, where he floated the idea of a small group to prepare a document for setting out the likely outcomes at Nairobi and also the future of the development Round.
It was in 2004 that a globally well-known and highly respected Brazilian, former trade envoy, Minister and then UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero, who (after the collapse of the WTO's Cancun Ministerial) in remarks at the Chatham House had compared the WTO's Doha Round of negotiations to the fate of the first Austrian Republic founded after the First World War, and said the Doha Round should be called "the round that no one wanted"; he amplified the remarks later in January 2009 when it was clear that the two trade majors, the EU and the US, who had been responsible for launching the Round, were trying to end their embarrassments and end the Doha talks [see Chakravarthi Raghavan (2014), "Round no one wanted now proving difficult to end", Third World in the Third Millennium CE, TWN, Vol. II, pp 343-350].
Five years further down the line, trade observers said, another Brazilian, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, appears to be intent on enabling the US and the EU to walk away with whatever they have already obtained, and resile from any further obligations to deliver on their promises at Doha, and their commitments at Marrakesh, by talking of new global agendas and facts.
It remains to be seen whether Azevedo, like a magician, can pull off this trick at Nairobi - to enable the host country Kenya to claim success and satisfy the Africans that their demands are being met, wind up the Doha Round, and enable the US and the EU to walk away with their gains - the Trade Facilitation accord, no more calls for cuts in domestic subsidies or fulfilling their development obligations, and keep the secretariat and trade envoys happy by engaging them in negotiations on new issues and agendas.
On Thursday, Azevedo announced that a small group of members would be constituted to prepare a document for setting out the likely outcomes and also the future of the development Round for deciding at the tenth ministerial meeting in Nairobi starting on December 15, several trade envoys told the SUNS.
At a hurriedly convened "green room" meeting with select trade envoys from over 30 countries, the DG floated his idea for forming the small group to prepare the document, without indicating why such a move is necessary at this juncture, said a trade envoy who was present at the meeting.
In an anti-climax of sorts capping 14 years of the Doha Development Agenda negotiations involving ministerial decisions and mandates, Azevedo claimed at the "green room" meeting Thursday that there is a sentiment for a small package of deliverables - on export competition, some issues for least-developed countries, and improvements in special and differential treatment provisions.
The DG did not mention the demand made by a large majority of countries at the last Heads of Delegations meeting for comprehensive and credible outcomes based on the previous Doha ministerial decisions as well as the 2008 revised draft modalities, according to an African trade envoy.
Azevedo, however, asked the trade envoys not to give up or close the door on credible outcomes at the Nairobi meeting. He admitted that there was no consensus yet among members on the package but said there is a general recognition for finalizing credible outcomes.
Calling on the participants to consider the status of the Doha negotiations after the Nairobi meeting, the DG asked somewhat rhetorically whether the Doha negotiations would continue or will it be assumed as having been concluded if there are no outcomes at Nairobi, according to the trade envoy present at the meeting.
The director-general sought to know whether it is possible to reconcile these two ideas in some form which he did not describe, according to a South American trade envoy.
He spoke about three scenarios such as completing the Doha Round at Nairobi, no outcome at Nairobi, and an outcome between the first two scenarios. In the same breadth, he also said with a small package of deliverables the Round cannot be completed.
The small group will also have to suggest whether there would be a ministerial declaration or a chair's summary or a combination of both in which all the contents would be listed, Azevedo said, according to participants present at the meeting.
In what a trade envoy from a least-developed country called 'a classical Orwellian doublespeak,' the DG went on to suggest that the document to be prepared by the small group has to represent the common concerns of all members for credible outcomes and provide the subsequent roadmap for the negotiations after the Nairobi meeting.
The director-general said there is a common sentiment to continue the development agenda but that it is not clear in what form i.e., whether under the Doha framework or outside the DDA.
"We don't know whether it is a good idea or a diabolical move but we are intrigued as to how a small group can decide the life and death issues of a development Round," said the trade envoy.
The DG did not suggest this idea at the meeting of the Group of Seven trade envoys of the US, the European Union, China, India, Brazil, Australia, and Japan on Monday.
During that meeting, India asked for proposals from the proponents of the small group on export competition.
But the US, which is pressing for the small package, said categorically that it would not put any proposal on the table, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Against this backdrop, it has to be seen whether the small group will push the envelope of the small package without disclosing the identity of the members, said an African trade envoy.
Nevertheless, at the green room meeting Thursday, the DG's idea was quickly endorsed in an orchestrated fashion by the trade envoys of Japan, Canada, Norway, the European Union, and the United States as well as some developing countries such as Singapore, and Hong Kong-China.
The US made it clear that it will not support the continuation of the DDA negotiations at Nairobi.
Japan proposed what a participant later called "an audacious" idea at the green room meeting by suggesting that due to paucity of time, members must set aside the existing mandates and remain unshackled to draft the document.
China asked whether there is consensus among members for the small group to prepare a compromise agreement that would take on board the concerns of all members.
China sought to know how the small group could arrive at a middle ground or compromise document if there is no agreement among members.
Bangladesh asked pointedly for clarification on what the mandate of the small group will be, to which the director-general did not offer any answer.
Saudi Arabia asked what would happen to the flexibilities sought by the Recently Acceded Members who had taken onerous commitments to join the trade body.
India reminded Japan that the WTO worked on the basis of the rules which are negotiated after agreeing to the mandates.
India asked how Japan could suggest that the small group must do away with mandates which are the pillars for negotiations at the WTO.
Japan, however, remained silent and did not respond to India's query, nor did the DG intervene to clarify about the mandates, a trade envoy told the SUNS.
Indonesia asked whether the work of the negotiating bodies will continue without interruption, emphasizing the need for not abandoning the Doha "ship." South Africa welcomed the idea (of a small drafting group) but emphasized about ensuring proper communication and transparency with the larger membership.