TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec08/02)
5 December 2008
Third World Network

Trade: Another WTO Ministerial in December?
Published in SUNS #6597 dated 25 November 2008

Geneva, 24 Nov (Kanaga Raja) -- Following the spectacular failure of the July mini-Ministerial meeting at the WTO to reach agreement on modalities for agriculture and non-agricultural market access (NAMA), it appears that another Ministerial meeting may be on the cards for sometime around the period of 10-19 December for another attempt to conclude the modalities this year.

This emerged from discussions at a Green Room meeting of some thirty key delegations convened by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy on Sunday afternoon.

Trade officials said that while no date was set for a Ministerial meeting -- and that won't happen until there is a clearer picture of what is going to happen on the substance of the talks this week -- what seems clear is that Ministers are coming to Geneva.

Trade officials attributed this to the unprecedented level of clear direction (with regards to concluding the modalities) from heads of state and government at the recent G-20 leaders' summit in Washington on the global financial crisis, the LDC Ministerial Conference in Cambodia last week, as well as the just-concluded APEC Summit in Peru.

(In the APEC leaders' statement on the global economy issued on 22 November in Lima, the leaders said "We seek an ambitious and balanced conclusion to the Doha Development Agenda negotiations to provide the basis for our economies to grow and prosper. We are committed to reach agreement on modalities next month on the basis of progress made to date. We and our Ministers are intensifying our engagement with WTO counterparts to create the convergence necessary to achieve this outcome.")

While trade officials could not say when exactly Ministers would be coming to Geneva, they did not rule out the possibility that a Ministerial meeting could go beyond 19 December, the date of the final General Council meeting for the year.

According to trade officials, at the Green Room meeting, Argentina was of the view that there is need to be realistic, and not shoot for something that is not obtainable.

Trade officials said that the focus of the Green Room meeting on Sunday was to discuss the issues of Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM), sensitive products in agriculture, the issue of sectorals and preference erosion (in NAMA). The issue of cotton was not taken up at this meeting.

The Director-General made clear at the Green Room meeting that these were not the only issues and that there are other issues as well. But he said that it is pretty clear that unless these issues are settled, none of the other issues would be settled either.

Speaking to journalists after the Green Room meeting, Mr Gusmardi Bustami, a senior Indonesian official from the capital and former Ambassador to the WTO, said "We are going to have the Ministerial. The date is maybe from 10-19 December."

He said that the political commitment is there, pointing in this respect to the Washington G-20 summit communique and the APEC Summit Declaration.

Ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia of India said that members are just exploring whether by this week "we will make enough progress to ensure that the Ministerial meeting is successful."

Asked whether any movement had been shown, he said that these are preparatory discussions. "You don't expect people to show [their] cards in these discussions. The intensive process starts from tomorrow (24 November) in the negotiating groups and that's where we hope to see signs of movement."

On the issue of the Special Safeguard Mechanism, the Indian envoy said that the G-33 is meeting and discussing everyday, but it depends on what flexibility is seen from others. No flexibility has been seen yet, and the story is the same on domestic support.

Asked if it's a given that there will be a Ministerial meeting from 10-19 December, Ambassador Bhatia said "I'll tell you next Friday (28 November)."

"We have to try to see that we achieve a scenario which makes it possible for Ministers to have success. We're not there yet, and hopefully by the end of this week (week ending 28 November), we will know for sure."

Meanwhile, a letter has been sent to US President George W Bush on 20 November by the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Coalition of Service Industries warning that holding a WTO Ministerial meeting prematurely would carry a high risk of failure.

In their letter, the three organizations expressed appreciation for the strong commitment in the G-20 Summit Declaration to reach an ambitious and balanced agreement in the WTO Doha Round and to refrain from imposing new trade barriers over the next year.

However, the three organizations said that they do not support the imposition of arbitrary timetables to reach modalities in agriculture and non-agricultural market access or agreement on services.

"We feel strongly that another WTO Ministerial meeting should only be held when there is sufficient evidence that WTO members are truly committed to opening their markets."

"We have yet to see such commitment, particularly from the key emerging economies. Holding a Ministerial meeting prematurely carries a high risk of failure that would cause harm to the credibility of the WTO and to global economic confidence," said the letter.

Only through renewed focus on generating significant new market access will the members of the WTO find their way to an agreement that reduces tariff and non-tariff barriers and barriers to services trade, the letter added. Such a Doha agreement will lead to greater trade, particularly for the least developed nations of the world, who are in the greatest need of the economic growth it will bring.

The organizations supported efforts to persuade WTO members to open their markets and accept negotiating modalities that would achieve the ambition and balance that has been called for by President Bush.

"However, in the absence of such a change in the coming weeks, we believe it would be a mistake for the WTO to hold a Ministerial meeting that would provide a choice between either accepting a weak and unbalanced set of modalities or having another ministerial failure," the letter concluded.

A copy of the letter has also been sent to US Trade Representative Susan Schwab.