TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct08/04)
6 October 2008
Third World Network

Agriculture: WTO multilateral level talks start again
Published in SUNS #6560 dated 3 October 2008 

Geneva, 2 Oct (Martin Khor) -- Substantive negotiations on agriculture are starting again today at the multilateral level at the WTO, for the first time since the mini-Ministerial meetings failed at the end of July.

At a open-ended informal meeting (open to all WTO members) held on Wednesday, the chair of the Doha agriculture negotiations, Ambassador Crawford Falconer of New Zealand, outlined his proposed schedule of work on various outstanding agriculture issues.

This includes small-group consultations on specific issues that will begin today (Thursday) with creation or non-creation of new tariff quotas, and tariff simplification. On Friday, the issue of Green Box domestic subsidy is scheduled, specifically footnote 5 of Annex 2 of the Agreement on Agriculture.

Next week (starting 6 October) will see discussions in small groups on the critical issue of special safeguard mechanism (SSM) for developing countries, a topic on which the July mini-Ministerial broke down. Another crucial issue, cotton subsidies, will also be discussed, as will sensitive products, and "headroom" for blue box subsidies.

Following these small group meetings, which Falconer has termed "walks in the woods" and which are to be held in the New Zealand Mission, the Chair intends to convene "Room D" meetings (to which around 36 delegations are invited) at the WTO in the week starting 13 October, culminating in another open-ended meeting for all members.

Falconer did not inform the meeting about whether he will issue another draft of his modalities paper. The last version had been issued in early July.

He told journalists after yesterday's meeting that he would issue a revised draft if enough progress was made. "A revision will be done by me or my successor," he said. Falconer's term of office will end at the end of the year and he said he would leave Geneva by about 20 December.

According to a trade official, no one spoke after Falconer provided information about the work schedule.

After the meeting, the Ambassador of a prominent developing country told SUNS that there did not seem to be an atmosphere of anticipation or significant interest in relation to the resumption of negotiations.

He cited the current global financial crisis and the pre-occupation with the United States Presidential elections as factors that caused a lack of real negotiating interest at the moment, as well as the feeling that it would be very difficult to really revive talks after the failure of the July mini-Ministerial, and the more recent failure in the second half of September of the G7 senior officials' efforts to revive the agriculture talks.

Another Ambassador, of another developing country which has been active in the negotiations, referred to a novel by the French writer Zola, and said the cloth (out of which the Doha Round was to be fashioned) had become smaller and smaller, and there was a danger it would be reduced to nothing.

He was alluding to the reduction of time and space for negotiations, as well as his perception of the diminishing of benefits to developing countries.

At the meeting, Falconer said his plans for the next two weeks' work resulted from consultations he has been having at the New Zealand mission among around 25 delegations, some discussions with individual members, and a recent "Green Room" meeting chaired by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy.

He explained that his "walk in the woods" type of small group consultations starting on 2 October would be on issues where members' positions are still apart.

Among these issues are:

-- Tariff quota creation "or non-creation". This relates to "sensitive products" which have smaller than formula tariff reductions and have to be paid for by a tariff quota. The issue is whether members are allowed to create new quotas. If not, then only products currently with quotas could be designated as "sensitive".

-- Tariff simplification. This is the issue of whether all tariffs have to be converted to "ad valorem" (percentages of the value), or whether some could be in specific values (eg, dollars per litre) and whether a few could remain in a more complex form.

-- The Green Box subsidy's Footnote 5 (in Annex 2 of the Agreement on Agriculture), which deals with developing countries' purchases from poor farmers for stockholding.

In the week of 6 October, the following issues will be discussed: Sensitive products; Special Safeguard Mechanism for developing countries; Cotton; and "Blue Box headroom" (allowing the US limits in Blue Box-type support per product that are 10% or 20% more than estimates of maximums under the 2002 Farm Bill).

Falconer said the discussions would be based on his 10 July draft text, with his 11 August report on what happened at the July mini-Ministerial meetings.

According to a trade official, he said he would not assume that the discussions in the 21-30 July meetings involving some ministers, had produced agreement. "What happened in July, happened in July," he told delegates, because with no formal agreement members' accounts of what they might or might not have agreed during those 10 days.

At the same time, his own discussions, including during the end-July meetings, have suggested that members were close to agreement on a number of issues if the whole package was falling into place. These included all export competition and export subsidy issues, in-quota tariffs and tariff-quota administration, he said. At some stage he said that he would check with members whether this was still valid. +