Spurt of NAMA talks planned till mid-June

2 May, 2006
Negotiations on non-agricultural market access (NAMA) will intensify with almost continuous meetings from 1 May to 16 June. The last two weeks (5-16 June) are to focus on finalizing modalities defining the level of ambition.

This schedule was presented at an informal NAMA meeting on Thursday (27 April) by the Chair of the NAMA negotiating group Ambassador Don Stephenson of Canada, who also introduced the draft of his progress report to the Trade Negotiations Committee which will meet on 1 May.

Stephenson also indicated that the cycle of talks will begin with issues relating to exceptions to the application of the tariff-reduction formula, and that issues (widely taken to be core) such as the formula and coefficients, treatment of unbound tariffs and flexibilities in applying the formula would be tackled towards the end.

These core issues determine the 'level of ambition' for NAMA, and this in turn would depend on the level of ambition in agriculture, which is expected to be settled only later.

The NAMA meeting was held in the shadow of the confirmation at a heads-of-delegation meeting last Monday that the 30 April deadline for NAMA modalities, set by the WTO's Hong Kong Declaration, will not be met.

Stephenson told the meeting that there was a need to conclude modalities for NAMA by 31 July, adding however that he was not setting any deadline.

He injected a sense of crisis, stating that 'These negotiations are in trouble, and the next few weeks are our last chance'. He regretted that when he proposed to members a discussion on the core elements of the modalities, everybody remained silent.

He said that because of this, he wanted to solve first the technical matters and then after that discuss the overall ambition. He also said that the Chair's process needs to be supplemented by group meetings and all Members being actively engaged in bi-laterals and group negotiations. The process will continue to be 'bottom-up' and increasingly 'text-based'.

Stephenson's approach has come more to resemble that of the Chair of the agriculture negotiations, Crawford Falconer, who in recent weeks has put the stress on the Geneva-based process, in a multilateral framework (rather than in exclusive mini-groupings), and with discussions focussing on 'softer' issues as well, rather than mainly on the 'core modalities.'

The report that Stephenson distributed was a significant one as it contains not only his assessments of the status of the negotiations (areas of convergence and disagreements) on each issue, but also his own proposed language or text in some of the areas.

In the report's annex, the Chair has compiled a table with three columns. The first column sets out the issues and language of the July 2004 Framework and Hong Kong Declaration; the second sets out modalities which have been agreed on (or where there is convergence, according to the Chair); and the third contains 'Chairman's remarks' in which he sets out his view on different positions in each issue, and possible language or ways forward in some of the areas.

It is this third column that could be most debatable. In the third column, the Chair has also included some selected texts of some of the members, for example, the Singapore-proposed text on sectoral initiatives, and some US and EC texts on non-tariff barriers.

According to a senior trade delegate present at the meeting, some members expressed some concerns as to the status of the proposed text included in the Chair's document under the third column, and whether these would be moved to the second column as modalities.

The Chair clarified that these proposed texts are open for negotiations and that they may or may not stay the same when moved to the second column.

The second column (for modalities where there is convergence of views) 'reflects how far we [members] have advanced on the path to full modalities,' which is 'rather blank,' said the Chair.

He added that this should be treated as a 'rolling document with the objective of filling in the middle column as quickly as possible in the weeks ahead.' He has also indicated that he will be willing to propose language for this column based on informal consensus in the Negotiating Group.

He added, 'however, until there is explicit agreement in the Negotiating Group, this language remains a proposal by the Chair.'

Though he pointed out that members have yet to reach consensus on these issues, some members during the Thursday meeting raised concerns that their views and papers had not been reflected in the Chair's annexed table.

Members of the 'NAMA-11' grouping of developing countries, which includes India, Argentina and Venezuela, complained that the document failed to reflect adequately the textual submissions they have recently made on the formula and paragraph 8 flexibilities.

They had, for example, proposed the need to compare the level of percentage cuts in industrial tariffs that have to be made by the developed and developing countries under the formula, in order that the mandate of 'less than full reciprocity' in tariff commitments can be fulfilled.

Argentina complained that the Chair's text omitted any mention of its paper on the links between NAMA and Agriculture negotiations (Paragraph 24 of the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration), and also omitted mention of the paper made by the 'NAMA-11'. The Chair replied that these papers were already reported to the last TNC meeting.

The EC said the Chair's report failed to include its October 2002 proposal that Members agree to deeper cuts for textiles, clothing, and footwear, with a view to bringing these tariffs within a narrow common range as close to zero as possible. This would also require that non-tariff barriers are substantially reduced and all export restrictions on raw materials are removed.

In other comments, China said it was important that developed countries move first to advance the negotiations. India and Egypt said the time is not ripe to start text-based negotiations on the sectoral component. This can be done only after the details of the formula as a core modality had been dealt with.

In relation to the sequencing of the negotiations over the coming 6 weeks, the Chair pointed out that there are two set of issues: one of ambition and the other of exceptions.

The issue of ambition in NAMA can only be resolved in tandem with the issue of ambition in agriculture, said the Chair's report. However, it is not possible to wait for progress there before work in NAMA proceeds, nor could all the issues to be dealt with be left to the end of the negotiations.

'We need to clear the way for the issue of ambition to be resolved - together with agriculture and perhaps ultimately by Ministers - and we need to do this by solving as many other issues as possible,' he reasoned.

The exceptions and outstanding technical issues (which presumably include LDCs, paragraph 6 countries, and the small and vulnerable economies) will be addressed as 'a first priority' while leaving the question of ambition to be resolved as a second step, according to the Chair.

The report lists the following schedule: 1-5 May (plurilateral consultations on exceptions and outstanding issues); 8-19 May (NAMA week focussing on finalizing modalities defining who would be covered by what exception and the level of their contribution); 22-26 May (bilateral and plurilateral consultations on different issues); 29 May-2 June (plurilateral consultations on formula, the mark-up for unbound tariffs and paragraph 8 flexibilities); and 5-16 June (NAMA weeks focussed on finalizing modalities defining the level of ambition).