TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (June 07/26)

27 June 2007

WTO postpones agriculture, NAMA meetings, to "cool off"

The WTO has postponed meetings on agriculture and NAMA for at least a week.

This is to allow "the dust to settle" and tempers to cool after the failure of the G4 Ministerial meeting at Potsdam.

Although some officials want the Doha talks to intensify straightaway, some diplomats especially from G4 countries prefer a cooling off period.  "We should hurry, slowly," said India's Ambassador.

The report below was published in the SUNS on 26 June.

With best wishes
Martin Khor

WTO postpones agriculture, NAMA meetings, to "cool off"

By Martin Khor (TWN), Geneva, 25 June 2007

Meetings on agriculture and non-agricultural market access (NAMA) that were scheduled to be held this week have been postponed for at least a week.

Several diplomats speculated that the postponement was to allow "the dust to settle" and tempers to cool after the failure of the G4 Ministerial meeting at Potsdam.

Two separate "open ended" meetings had been scheduled on agriculture and NAMA on Monday to which all WTO members were invited, to undertake a "transparency" exercise, in which information and views would be exchanged.

However, these two meetings were considered "redundant" because an informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee had already been held last Friday, according to a joint fax sent late last Friday to WTO members by the Chair of the Committee on Agriculture (special session), Ambassador Crawford Falconer of New Zealand, and the Chair of the Negotiating Group on Market Access for Non-Agricultural Products, Ambassador Don Stephenson of Canada.

Falconer added that he had intended to hold some consultations on agriculture in a small group format immediately after the open ended meeting, but had now decided to postpone those meetings until the beginning of the week of 1 July.

According to the fax, in due course, after those consultations, Falconer will then convene an open-ended informal agriculture meeting. Similarly, Stephenson will also postpone his consultations until that week as well.

The two Chairs had been expected to conduct intensified consultations and negotiations the whole of this week as the last round of talks before they produce their respective papers on modalities for agriculture and NAMA. The substantive outcome of the G4 meeting was to have provided important inputs to their papers.

However, with the failure of the G4 meeting, the process of finalizing the modalities papers have become both more and less difficult. More difficult because there is no agreed position of four of the most important players on which to anchor the modalities. Less difficult because the Chairs are now more free to provide their own views without having to cater to agreed G4 positions.

When news of the G4 collapse arrived in Geneva last Thursday afternoon, there was the expectation that the multilateral negotiation process would intensify immediately at the WTO.

A statement by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy a few hours after the close of the Potsdam meeting affirmed that the multilateral negotiating process would continue "as of today in Geneva" and that the process is "driven by the Chairs" who would table compromise texts.

This view of immediate action at the WTO was strengthened by the immediate convening of a kind of crisis meeting of the TNC by Lamy. In his opening speech, Lamy told the TNC that "time is not on our side" and "the need now is for urgent action to restore confidence that these negotiations can and will be finished successfully."

Some diplomats are of the view that Lamy is keen to get the multilateral negotiations moving as fast as possible so that his plan to convene a Mini-Ministerial meeting at the end of July to usher in texts of agriculture and NAMA modalities can still be fulfilled.

In this scenario, the TNC meeting last Friday would have been followed by a frenzy of negotiating activities this week, where the multilateral process would take over from the failed G4 process, like a smooth changeover of batons between runners in a relay race, in the dash to the end-of-July finishing line.

However, the G4 members had neither the mood nor the appetite for such a seamless cross-over from a group-of-4 to a 150-member process.

"We should hurry slowly," India's Ambassador to the WTO, Mr. Ujal Singh Bhatia, told the SUNS. It is well and good to want to rush quickly to the next phase of negotiations, he remarked, but we need a little time for reflection, just as there was reflection after the Cancun meeting and last year's July meeting.

The Brazilian delegation was also of this view. Brazil's Ambassador, Mr. Clodoaldo Hugueney, told the SUNS: "For the next steps, we have to look a bit and see if there are grounds for a real resumption of talks based on what has happened."

The US Trade Representative Susan Schwab told the media last Friday, just before the TNC meeting, that "we need the dust to settle."

Apparently, too much feelings have been generated by the G4 meeting and its aftermath, and some time to cool off, and for reflection is required.

According to a diplomatic source, while Lamy was eager to re-start the Geneva process, Falconer was more concerned with preserving the negotiations and to seek a better moment to produce his modalities text.

This could explain why a one-week "time off" has been called by the two Chairs, who do not want to be rushed into calling for intensified negotiations when some of the most important members do not have the mood to face one another across the table so soon after their meeting had ended so acrimoniously.

Thus, the Indian ambassador's phrase - that "we have to hurry slowly" - may come to be the phrase that guides the next phase of the Doha negotiations.