TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Nov08/07)
19 November 2008
Third World Network

Agriculture: Movement needed by end next week, warns Chair
Published in SUNS #6593 dated 19 November 2008

Geneva, 18 Nov (Kanaga Raja) -- The Chair of the agriculture negotiations at the WTO on Monday called on members to show changed positions by the end of next week if trade negotiators are to fulfill a pledge made by the G-20 leaders at a meeting on the financial crisis in Washington over the weekend to strive to reach agreement on modalities this year.

Chairman of the Special Session of the Committee on Agriculture, Ambassador Crawford Falconer of New Zealand, issued this call to delegations attending an informal open-ended meeting of the Special Session.

According to trade officials, the Chair in particular called for officials from the 20 leading countries that attended the Washington summit on the global financial crisis to show movement. He argued that the officials must have briefed their leaders on the movement needed in order for the communique to have been issued.

According to trade officials, delegates from several of these countries responded that they would need a few days for their officials to come from capitals and present any changed positions. No delegation (except Uruguay, which was not at the Washington summit) said that it had any changes to offer on Monday.

Speaking to journalists after the informal meeting, Falconer said that he had looked forward to hearing from members at the informal meeting the precise details of what flexibilities they had, based on the fact that there was a clear political will to conclude negotiations following the G20 talks.

"I heard not a word," Falconer said.

The Chair also outlined to journalists several difficult issues that members would have to move on, amongst others, the special safeguard mechanism, sensitive products, tariff simplification, tariff quota creation, and cotton.

[In his August report to the Trade Negotiations Committee (after the spectacular failure of the mini-ministerial late July) reflecting the state of play, Falconer had said that while there was a credible basis for conclusion on very many (and possibly one could have said "nearly all") issues, there was decisive disagreement on certain matters while other very significant issues were not even dealt with. Had the "outstanding" matters been resolved (and that would have been no small matter), "I do think the rest could have fallen into place'", said the Chair.

[In some concluding remarks in his August report, Falconer had also said that the task does not begin and end with the Special Safeguard Mechanism. He mentioned cotton, "one of the other three or four potential deal-breakers, which was not at all seriously addressed before things broke down with SSM". He also pointed to tariff quota creation and tariff simplification.]

According to trade officials, the Chair arrived at his dates by counting backwards from 18-19 December, the dates of the last General Council meeting before the year-end Christmas and the New Year holiday.

Ministers would need some days before that to settle the differences in the modalities and would work on a revised draft text, which Falconer would have to circulate leaving enough time for delegations to study the latest provisions.

That would mean that the Chair's draft would have to be written and circulated in the first week of December. Therefore, significant movement would have to be shown by the end of next week.

The Chair informed delegations that he would call another informal meeting of the full membership on Friday afternoon (21 November) to hear about movement in positions. He however added that he would cancel this meeting if there were no indications of movement.

Meanwhile, he said that he would continue with his smaller group consultations this week (the so-called "walks in the woods" and similar discussions) on preference erosion, export competition and domestic support.

According to trade officials, most speakers said that their delegations were ready to work for modalities to be agreed. Some said that they could start immediately, while some others said that their senior officials were preparing to travel to Geneva but would need time.

Some said that their officials could come to Geneva after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima. (The APEC schedule is 16-17 November for senior officials, 19-20 November for ministers and 22-23 November for heads of government.)

According to trade officials, Uruguay said that it would circulate a new proposal on tariff simplification, reflecting a movement in its position.

Mexico called on all members to try to reach agreement.

According to trade officials, Brazil said that the G20 (the WTO agriculture group led by Brazil, as different from the G-20 financial group that met at summit level in Washington) would need a few days to consult.

The EC said that an agreement is "not impossible". The United States said that it expected to be able to "engage constructively" in a few days.

Switzerland, speaking for the G-10, said that the talks clearly need to accelerate substantially, and that the G-10 would be paying the highest price, which should be taken into account.

According to trade officials, Cuba said that it supported the Chair's efforts but questioned whether agreement could be reached by the end of the year, after so many failed attempts.

Australia said that it wanted time to consult with the Cairns Group.

Meanwhile, speaking to journalists after the informal meeting, Ambassador Falconer, pointing to the G-20 meeting in Washington, said that he wanted to know at the informal agriculture meeting what the flexibilities were that members had, to conclude the negotiation based on the fact that there is a clear political will to do so.

He said that he had looked forward to hearing from members this afternoon the precise details of what the flexibilities were. "I heard not a word."

With regard to timing, Falconer told journalists that when working back from the dates, clearly, the end effectively is when the General Council finishes, which is about 18-19 December. If final decisions are going to be taken, it's presumably some days in advance of that. If there are going to be ministers, they would have to turn up some days in advance of that.

If there is no flexibility shown this week, Falconer said "then, basically, it's very hard to avoid the conclusion that you would have to have had the progress made by the end of next week."

"So, if they don't show anything this week, at least by Friday, then it's basically their de facto saying it's next week or bust," said the Chair.

Asked when a revised text would be needed, Falconer said that "first, I don't have to have a text. I've got a text which is the July text... I wouldn't put it as when do you need to have a revised text, as when do you need to have demonstrable changes of position which can be reflected in a revised text."

He added that his conclusion is that it (changes of position) would have to be at the end of next week at the latest.

Asked if he saw any changes since July on the key issues, the Chair told journalists: "I've seen some changes. I've seen some moderation of a relatively minor nature in people's positions. I've also seen them go backwards on some issues as well. But none of the changes for what I would call the positive - which would actually lead to convergence - none of those changes has been of such material significance that it would make a different basis upon which you could proceed textually yet."

"If they had the political will that their leaders have indicated, then they could do this in an afternoon," he said.

Asked to name some of the remaining difficult issues that members would have to move on, Falconer highlighted several:

-- the Special Safeguard Mechanism. There needs to be significant movement on what could happen above the (present or pre-Doha Round) bound rate. There is disagreement now on what is going to be done with regards to under the bound rate, said the Chair.

-- the number of sensitive products. There is no agreement on what the number of sensitive products should be, he said.

-- on the question of what happens to tariffs that will be allowed to stay above 100% after tariff cuts, there is still no agreement on whether and for how many you could have above 100% on that, according to Falconer.

-- phasing out the present special safeguard (SSG, used by heavily subsidising advanced countries, who had undertaken tariffication of all their import restrictions.)

-- on the question of tariff simplification, whether all tariffs should be converted to percentages of the value.

-- whether new tariff quotas can be created. There is still disagreement over that, according to the Chair.

-- cotton. "We've got nothing on cotton any further than what we had in July," said Falconer.

What is not known, Falconer concluded, is whether resolving these will allow other issues to be settled more easily.