Doha talks to "return" to WTO's multilateral forum

23 April, 2007

WTO members agreed on Friday 20 April to turn to multilateral negotiations at the WTO itself in Geneva as the central method to try and achieve a breakthrough in the organisation's troubled Doha talks.

At an informal meeting of the WTO's Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) this morning, the members agreed with Director General Pascal Lamy that the talks have to be returned to the WTO's multilateral process.

This was an acknowledgement that the exclusive talks among the G4 - the United States, European Union, Brazil and India - and the G6 (the G4 plus Japan and Australia) had failed to provide results so far.

Many developing countries that spoke at the meeting welcomed the return of the Doha talks to the WTO's multilateral forum. They however warned that the need for urgency and deadlines must not be at the expense of the substance or content of the negotiations, with development being the central purpose and benchmark.

Since the beginning of this year, much of the "real negotiations" have been held outside the WTO and outside Geneva in bilateral discussions among the G4 members. Other WTO members have been increasingly frustrated that they had been left out and that little information on the G4 talks was filtering back to the general membership.

The first Ministerial meeting (since the talks were suspended last July) of the G4 and then the G6 in Delhi a fortnight ago also drew a blank as far as substance was concerned. The Delhi meeting's communique affirmed that the whole Doha package should be completed by the end of the year and that the G6 would intensify their efforts towards that target.

The lack of anything new in this uninspiring outcome eroded whatever confidence and patience the wider WTO membership may still have had with the G4 process. Moreover, some of the G4 members themselves admitted the limits of their process and were in favour of moving the talks back to Geneva.

The "return to Geneva" of the negotiations will firstly mean that the agriculture talks will now intensify at the WTO. The Chair of the agriculture negotiations, Ambassador Crawford Falconer of New Zealand, will issue a paper "challenging" members at the end of next week, and this will kick off negotiations that he hopes will lead to texts that will narrow the differences in various topics.

Talks on other issues, primarily non agricultural market access (NAMA), and including services, reforms of rules on anti-dumping and countervailing measures, and "development issues", are also expected to resume. However, it is also widely recognised that progress in these other areas will depend on whether there is first a breakthrough in agriculture.

Although some of the G4 Ministers at their press briefing in Delhi had said they are not in favour of new artificial deadlines, a time schedule is emerging after today's meeting.

The logic and new deadlines are as follows. The whole Doha package has to conclude by the end of 2007 because after that the US will be embroiled in Presidential elections and it will have no time for the WTO.

Given the end-2007 deadline, the modalities for agriculture and NAMA have to be concluded by the end of July before the WTO summer break, so that there will be time for other topics to be negotiated and the schedules of commitments to be drawn up and verified.

And even though the multilateral process is now central, the G4 and G6 must also achieve their own breakthrough to unlock that process. The EU's ambassador to WTO today announced that mid-June is when the G4 must have its breakthrough.

Talking at the corridors of today's TNC meeting, several diplomats expressed their support for a return of the Doha talks to the WTO, but also scepticism that this change would somehow produce results.

"If the G4 and the G6 hit a wall, there must be some reason, and that factor will also surely appear when the talks resume at the WTO," said a developing-country diplomat. "But it is better that the differences emerge or re-emerge here at the WTO, where we can all see what the differences are and take part in the talks."

At the TNC meeting, the view that the G4 and G6 process had not made progress was explicitly and implicitly voiced, and support was given by almost all to prioritising the multilateral process instead.

But perhaps the sharpest comment was made by the Barbados Ambassador, Trevor Clarke. Speaking for the small and vulnerable economies (SVEs), Clarke asked for more information on what was the problem faced by the G4 in their talks. We want to multilateralise the process now, he said, but we need to know what is the problem so that we can make progress in resolving it.

It was a fair request, which many delegates shared, judging from the nodding of many heads that responded to Clarke's statement. But even as the TNC meeting ended, no one was the wiser as to why the G4 process had failed so far. There was no discussion of the substance of the G4 talks, and thus no multilateralisation of knowledge of the state of play in that process.

At the start of the TNC meeting, Lamy said the "key urgent need now is serious substantive engagement by all partners in the multilateral process here in Geneva." He urged members to support the work of the chairs of the negotiating groups with "constructive inputs and a real willingness to negotiate."

His main point was that "it is clear today that the multilateral process can no longer be made to wait for the contribution of small groups. Other processes in or outside Geneva have an undeniable importance, but they must feed into the multilateral negotiations, which are the core of our business and which must move on.

"Through their different processes, the Chairs of the Negotiating Groups are working towards revised texts which can become a basis for agreement. Their task will be greatly assisted if they receive signs of convergence from discussions elsewhere, but they will have to keep on moving ahead in any case. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to let the multilateral process wait upon the timing of any other process.

"As we move towards modalities in agriculture and NAMA, the other areas must also move to a commensurate level of maturity if we are to have the whole package agreed around the end of the year."

This was a full turn-around by Lamy. It was he who laid great store in the G6 process in the middle of last year, in the belief that the "technical" blockages in his own defined triangle of key issues (agricultural subsidies, agricultural market access and NAMA) could only be unblocked if the key players could reach a "political" deal among themselves, and then bring it to the rest of the members.

When the G6 Ministers failed to reach a deal in July 2006, despite promising rhetoric from the St. Petersburg G8 Summit, it was Lamy who suggested that the Doha talks be suspended across the board. The 30 to 40 other non-G6 Ministers who had assembled in Geneva in anticipation of the convening of meetings of a Super Green Room (mini-Ministerial) and then a special General Council meeting were left hanging in the air.

Lamy's suspension thesis then was that if the G6 members could not agree at high level among themselves, then there was no point continuing discussions in Geneva that would lead nowhere.

Since the July 2006 suspension, Lamy has tried to coax political leaders of the G6 members, and of other countries and groupings as well. Resumption of the talks at the end of 2006 had been in the form of informal "fireside chats" convened by Falconer.

After the Davos mini-Ministerial at the start of this year, the "real negotiations" had again been conducted by the G4 meeting bilaterally, culminating in their meeting at Ministerial level as a group in Delhi. Meanwhile, the talks at the WTO have been low-key and at informal level, with members and Chairs waiting for results from the G4.

The failure of the G4 process to date has now caused Lamy to lead the TNC to conclude that "there is no substitute for a genuine multilateral negotiation in Geneva" and that "we cannot afford to let the multilateral process wait upon the timing of any other process."

This conclusion has come after the investment of months spent on the G4 meetings before the traumatic July 2006 "suspension" meeting, and another 8 to 9 months after that, when efforts again focused on getting a G4 breakthrough.

After Lamy's statement, several WTO members spoke. Indian Ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia said that the Delhi G4 and G6 meetings had provided a renewed commitment to end the Round by the end of the year and the G4 senior officials and Ministers would engage with greater intensity in the next two months.

India added that the most important message from the Delhi meetings is the centrality of the multilateral process in Geneva, and how the G-4/G-6 can contribute to this to ensure that we move towards multilateral convergence "on the entire range of issues in the negotiating agenda, through a process that gives equal importance to the needs of all members, large and small."

Intensive engagement and structured processes are important but they will continue to flounder if we disregard the guiding principles of the mandate, said India. Now that the talks had reached the 'now or never' phase, it is all the more essential for all to renew commitment to the mandate and resist all efforts to introduce extraneous elements into the negotiations.

Given the very limited time and the complexity of the issues, speed is obviously of the essence. However, warned India, the need to make haste cannot dictate to us the content of the outcome. At the end of the day, a sustainable outcome has to provide comfort to all members. That can only happen if the mandate is comprehensively addressed and inconvenient issues are not brushed under the carpet.

India stressed that there must be a balanced consideration of all issues across the negotiating agenda. Concluding the Round means concluding on all aspects of the mandate. All areas of the negotiations have to receive equal attention.

The European Union said it was committed to an ambitious and comprehensive outcome. It said the G4 had set a target of mid-June to reach convergence (among its members). If this target is met, the WTO could agree to modalities and a full package by the end of the year.

Brazil said the Delhi meetings marked a new phase for the G4. It acknowledged that there must be more focus on the Geneva process. There was some progress in the G4 but it was insufficient and major gaps remain. While the G4 must intensify its negotiations, the G4 is not a substitute for the multilateral process. There is need to support the work of the Chairs of the negotiating groups.

The United States said it was a challenge to conclude the end-of-year deadline but "success is within our reach." The delegation had been given instructions from the highest level to intensify its participation at all levels. Any progress in small groups must work its way to the multilateral process.

Uganda on behalf of the Africa Group said the Group is concerned that the process adopted at the start of the year had not delivered to expectations. That is why the negotiations should be brought back to the multilateral platform in Geneva. It stressed the need for transparency and all-inclusiveness, including a balanced representation in the restricted meetings to be held from now onwards. Only this would ensure participation and ownership of the process by all members.

The Africa Group stressed that the deadline of the end of 2007 should not lead to having to sacrifice the substance of the outcome. It said the central purpose and theme of the negotiations is development and this must be the benchmark of assessing progress and the final outcome of the negotiations.

The Group said that in agriculture, the designation and treatment of special products must provide maximum flexibility to African countries to reflect their needs and the Special Safeguard Mechanism should be operationally effective. On NAMA, it said Africa cannot but re-emphasise that the outcome must not lead to a de-industrialisation of the African economies. In services, the current GATS flexibilities must be maintained.

The Group added what is lacking today is not technical skills but political will, and it called on the major players to show political will and flexibility.

Lesotho, on behalf of the LDC Group, welcomed a return to the multilateral process and called for a balanced approach. Development must be at centre stage and the LDCs must be enabled to participate in a central way. The schedule should not supersede the substance in importance. It stressed the LDC demands for duty and quota free market access and more transparent rules of origin.

China said it shared the views of others on the urgency to intensify work to avoid failure. Referring to the communiques from the recent Delhi G6 and the Cairns Group meetings, it said the major players must turn their good words into action, especially for early removal of trade-distorting measures. China also stressed the need to fully realise the development goals of Doha. The SP and SSM mechanisms have a vital role to play.

China added that time constraints should not be an excuse to sacrifice transparency and inclusiveness. It urged the Chairs to produce fair draft texts that reflected the views of all.

Jamaica on behalf of the ACP Group said it noted that there had been no significant progress since February. It welcomed the end-2007 deadline. If the production of revised texts leads to a more inclusive process, this is to be welcomed. The texts must reflect the views of all members. The development dimension is central and must be reflected.

Barbados on behalf of the small and vulnerable economies said the G4 process had to be integrated into the larger multilateral process. It wanted to hear what progress had been made by the G4 process. There was need for more specific information on the problems faced. Since we want to multilateralise the process, we need to know what is the problem so that we can make progress to resolve it, said Barbados.

Switzerland on behalf of the G10 welcomed the re-start of the Geneva process and said it must take account of all members' views. The interests are multiple and complex and thus a multilateral process is needed.