WTO meeting confirms missed deadlines, no Ministerial

Original Publication Date: 
25 April, 2006
The World Trade Organisation Monday finally made the conclusion that the deadlines for reaching 'modalities' for agriculture and non-agricultural market access by the end of this month could not be met, and that a planned meeting of some 30 Ministers would be called off.

These conclusions were made at an informal 'heads of delegation' meeting on Monday afternoon at the WTO. They had been expected even before the meeting began because the same conclusions had been made at a 'Green Room' meeting of some 30 Ambassadors with WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy last Friday afternoon.

At today's meeting, to which all delegations were invited, Lamy said 'it is clear we will not be in a position to establish modalities in agriculture and NAMA by the end of April. Despite all the work put in, the progress made is insufficient for Ministers to be able to negotiate modalities with a reasonable chance of success.

'More time is needed even if the time available is now very limited. The necessary conditions have not yet been met. The moment is not ripe for the Ministerial involvement. We need to put well-developed texts before them for decision, and these texts are not yet there.'

Lamy said he was thus not encouraging Ministers to come to Geneva this week or next, 'and I am not planning to organize any specific gatherings at Ministerial level.'

He also made clear that there would not be any new deadlines for agriculture and NAMA modalities but made clear these had to be attained before the end of July. Referring to other deadlines the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration had set at the end of July, he said 'It is simply not possible to backload the modalities on agriculture and NAMA to July; that would guarantee failure.'

Lamy also indicated a switch in emphasis in the negotiating methods. In recent months, there had been a lull in the negotiations, as action had shifted outside Geneva. Delegations in Geneva were left waiting to hear of progress (or lack of it) of exclusive mini-Ministerial meetings, or meetings of senior officials, held outside Geneva, of a few members, particularly of the so-called Group of 6 (EU, US, Brazil, India, Australia, Japan).

This had led to grumbling from other members who were kept out of the process, who increasingly asked, in diplomatic language, that the negotiating process must be 'inclusive' and 'transparent' if it is to have any legitimacy, and if there is to be an outcome acceptable to all.

Lamy had been seen by the large number of smaller delegations to be favouring the exclusive and elitist approach, of getting to what was considered as a few key Ministers in a few key countries, and hoping to have them thrash out a deal, which everyone else would feel pressurized to accept. The planned mini-Ministerial in Geneva at the end of April was regarded with some apprehension by many delegations for this reason.

In a turnaround, Lamy today emphasized that 'there should be no doubt that the game is here in Geneva, in the multilateral arena, not anywhere else. This is a guarantee for all the membership that they are all players.'

He also announced that the pace of negotiations would intensify from now on. 'From now on the process to reach modalities will be continuous, Geneva-based and focused on texts, and we should aim to finish this work in a matter of weeks rather than months.'

Several small delegations are now worried that there will be negotiations taking place simultaneously on agriculture and NAMA and perhaps other issues (like services) as well.

The African Group, represented by Benin, told today's meeting that the WTO membership should remember that as the process turns intensive, with the formulation of texts, there are many small delegations which have limited personnel and resources, that constrain their negotiating capacity.

One African delegate, after today's meeting, outside the meeting hall, expressed anxiety that with only one staff (himself), his Mission would be unable to follow the negotiations properly, especially since the issues were so technically complex.

Another delegate said that the missing of the deadline was almost inevitable. 'The problem in the first place was the setting of an unrealistic deadline for the end of April,' he said.

'After the Hong Kong Ministerial, the talks resumed in Geneva seriously only at the beginning of March. How could anyone seriously expect that modalities would be finished by the end of April?'

The mode of 'continuous negotiations' will start at the beginning of May. The Chairperson of the agriculture negotiations, Crawford Falconer, had announced last Friday that he would convene three cycles of talks, each lasting a fortnight.

This would start at the beginning of May and end in mid-June. The negotiations will be based on 'reference papers' that he has prepared (and will prepare), which contain suggestions for texts. The meetings will be held in Geneva, and open to all delegations to participate.

This mode was discussed favourably at last Friday's Green Room meeting, and is now seen as the 'way forward', after the failure so far of the exclusive out-of-Geneva processes to make a breakthrough.

The Friday Green Room meeting had set the foundation for the heads of delegation meeting of today.

According to a trade diplomat, the Green Room meeting discussed two issues: whether to have a mini Ministerial at the end April and what process to follow now that the deadlines are missed.

On the first issue, almost all participants in the Green Room were against the Ministerial. They felt there was no basis to give anything of substance to the Ministers to decide on.

On the issue of process, all agreed that there should not be any new deadlines set. The understanding is that the modalities would have to be finished before the end of July. It would thus be unwise to fix end-July as the next deadline, as there might not be much movement until near that new deadline.

The meeting also agreed on the need for more 'intensive' negotiations on NAMA and agriculture, with discussions moving as much as possible to drafting of texts.

This week, there will be discussions on Wednesday to Friday on agriculture, and on Monday, 1 May, a meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee will be held.