TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Mar08/12)
18 March 2008
Third World Network

Agriculture: No revised text soon, Friday meeting to decide process
Published in SUNS #6432 dated 11 March 2008

Geneva, 10 Mar (Martin Khor) -- Negotiations within the agriculture group at the WTO are to continue for at least another week, and a new revised text will probably come out only after Easter, thus pushing back the start of the so-called "horizontal process."

This seems to be the conclusion of an open-ended agriculture meeting held this afternoon at the WTO. Another meeting will be held on Friday to come to a conclusion on the next steps in the negotiations.

The chair of the agriculture negotiations, Ambassador Crawford Falconer, told journalists after the meeting that most members wanted the multilateral process to continue.

This is a code in WTO jargon meaning that the members want to continue discussions within the agriculture group, which is taking place in a small group of 37 delegations known as "Room E consultations", combined with the open-ended "transparency meetings" to which all members are invited. The process is chaired by Falconer.

At some stage, this group process is supposed to "move" to a "horizontal process", in which senior officials and Ministers of selected countries (whose identities are not known) are to negotiate agriculture and non-agriculture market access together, under the chairmanship of Director General Pascal Lamy, who is also the chair of the Trade Negotiations Committee.

It would seem that most WTO members do not believe that the time has come to move into the horizontal process, a point that emerged at today's meeting.

For Falconer, the time is also not yet ripe for him to produce a new revised text on agriculture, although there is pressure on him, from those who want to start a horizontal process as soon as possible, before Easter. This pressure arises from an over-riding objective by proponents of the horizontal process to conclude the entire Doha Round by the end of this year.

Falconer told the media that some long-awaited data had been provided by the developed countries on their domestic consumption of some products, which are required for calculating the expansion of tariff rate quotas as a condition for their designating some products as "sensitive products" that are to have more lenient tariff cuts.

However, the data provided by the major importing countries and groupings (US, EU, G10) are still being assessed by major exporting countries. The latter (including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, New Zealand) have expressed unhappiness with the data, stating at today's meeting that they represent a lowering of the level of market access by the importing countries, as compared to previously. The exporters especially have problems with important items such as rice and sugar.

The main exporting and importing members (in a group of about 11) will meet for the rest of this week to see if they can come to a common understanding. The lack of agreement on the data that will influence the level of expanded tariff rate quota and thus part of the treatment of sensitive products has become the most immediate "sticky issue" that is preventing an early issuing of a new revised text.

Falconer put forward 4 options for the way forward in the negotiating process, including to come up immediately with a new text that only reflects a few new technical points, or to carry on with the multilateral process (i. e. the Room E and open-ended meetings within the agriculture group), or to provide a text now that does not enjoy consensus and hope, like magic, that it will lead to an agreement.

According to Falconer, most members preferred the option of continuing with the multilateral process.

Trade officials said that many developing countries and their groupings at the meeting, including the G33 and the Africa Group, stressed their most important priority was to get the substance of an agreement right, and that this rather than a deadline should be driving the process.

They strongly supported the continuation of the multilateral process conducted under Falconer, thus rejecting the notion of quickly transferring to a horizontal process.

Falconer said that another meeting will be held on Friday, for members to further discuss the future process. At that time, it may become clearer whether the group discussing data on domestic consumption and tariff rate quota expansion would have made progress.

(A more detailed report of the meeting will be in the next issue of SUNS). +