WTO’s Latest Talks Stumble Into Chaos

Is the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round finally dead? If not, it is badly wounded after the WTO’s agriculture committee meeting earlier this week.

After negotiators met on Sept. 23, they issued a statement saying basically they have no idea how to take the talks forward, almost 13 years after they started in Doha, Qatar in 2001.

In an unusually frank –- and discouraged –- statement, the WTO on Sept. 24 said that “agriculture delegates continued to differ on how to proceed with work on agriculture under the 2013 Bali Ministerial Conference’s decisions and in the Doha Round talks, this time when they met as negotiators on 23 September 2014.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, chairman John Adank of New Zealand said that “I don’t think it will come as any surprise to members that my general conclusion as of now is that in the absence of a solution to the current impasse, there is no consensus on how the negotiations mandated for this committee can be taken forward. And so I would plan to report these views to the director-general, in my view, the views that I’ve expressed represent an accurate summary reflection of the range of views we’ve heard today.”

There had been hope of new impetus after WTO meetings last year in Bali. But the trade facilitation text presented to the members in the current meeting was attacked by 19 speakers from both developed and developing nations. Before the two-hour meeting was over, a total of 35 speakers had intervened with various statements, according to the WTO press release.

Among those who attacked the Bali document, “several repeated their view that the hold-up on trade facilitation amounted to a betrayal of trust, which made it impossible engage in further work in good faith.”

While the Doha Round encompasses a wide range of other issues, it is agriculture that remains the main sticking-point. The talks began more than a decade ago amid high hopes after the formation of the World Trade Organization from the General Agreement on Taxes and Tariffs in 1995 and with the later inclusion of China. However, the WTO appears to have evolved into a mere talking-shop as much as anything where the 160 member states meet to wrangle with each other.

The hope, when negotiators convened in Doha, was that trade barriers could be shrunk, particularly in agriculture, and thus facilitate increased global trade. However, they have been stalled since 2008 over agriculture, industrial tariffs and non-tariff barriers in services and trade. The negotiations collapsed in insoluble disagreement between India and the United States over a measure designed to protect poor farmers by allowing countries to impose a special tariff on certain agricultural goods in the event of a surge in imports and a fall in prices. India refused to accept the provision and accused the US of duplicity.

In the meantime, the world has pressed ahead with a flock of bilateral free trade agreements that have made the WTO even less relevant, except perhaps for its clout as a forum for countries that use it to press anti-dumping measures against their commercial enemies while pro WTO forces have despaired, calling the FTAs a “spaghetti bowl” (in the west) and a “noodle bowl” (in Asia) that make it that much harder to negotiate a common global trade regime.

Among those bilateral agreements are ones between ASEAN and six countries including India, China and Japan; China with 10 other countries; the European Union with 23 other countries; India with 11 other countries or trade blocs; the United States with 21 other countries; and many more.

One of the biggest, waiting in the wings, is the TransPacific Partnership Agreement being negotiated between the Obama Administration in United States and 12 other countries from South America across the Pacific to most of the countries in Asia including Japan. It has been stalled by the coming US elections and recalcitrance on the part of several of its prospective Asian partnership. The agreement has been accused of being a western method of neutralizing China’s enormous trade advantages. It is uncertain when, if ever, it will pass.

In the meantime, the WTO grinds on. Against the expectations of the rich nations, the first blowup was in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, when a coalition of developing nations rose up, somewhat to the west’s astonishment, to refuse to allow the industrialized agricultural countries such as the United States and the European Union access to their markets at what was perceived to be to their disadvantage.

Since then, talks have reconvened in a wide geographical range of venues, often with anti-globalizaton protesters attempting to break down the doors, resulting in holding the talks in ever-more remote locations.

On the failure of the long-running Doha talks themelves, Director General Pascal Lamy said recently in one statement that, "Members have simply not been able to bridge their differences." European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has blamed the collapse of other talks as a "collective failure." Several countries have periodically blamed each other for the breakdown. The US and some European Union members have blamed India. India has claimed that the US is attempting to sacrifice the world's poor for U.S./European commercial interests. More than 100 other countries supported India’s declaration.

The talks appear to be scheduled to go on, despite their lack of progress and despite the pessimism expressed in the statement over the agriculture committee’s failure to move the Bali talks forward.