Shipwrecks On Mexico’s Shores

Published: The Financial Express, June 24, 2003
By Pradeep S Mehta

Geneva: The Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is quite a contentious idea, and far from a reality. This anomaly continued to reverberate here at the WTO public symposium organised last week. Skepticism was rather heavy in the warm and humid atmosphere here, where temperatures had reached an unprecedented 35 degree celsius and humidity touching new heights just a week before.

Over the last 18 months, the rich countries have consistently shown that they are not willing to move forward on what were meant to be the preliminary stages of the negotiations. They have refused to make good their promises on implementation and special and differential treatment, which were meant to precede the other negotiating topics in the Round. This was the hard-won agreement at Doha and it was the primacy of these issues that justify the development insert.

As the next ministerial meeting moves closer, these same countries cannot be surprised if negotiations on market access for industrial goods and services have ground to a halt. Developing countries were anyway suffering from the Syndrome of Acute Mistrust and Tension (Samit) in trade negotiations and needed a demonstration of commitment. Said a delegate, Geneva has not been suffering from SARS, but from Samit. Instead, the discussions have been reduced to a few issues, like the classification of countries into developing and least developed and maybe other categories.

Understandably, this is a delicate issue for countries like India, which, though not as poor as other developing countries nevertheless has a huge number of poor people. More importantly, India and many others have termed this move as another ‘divide and conquer’ strategy.

S&D treatment has three aspects: operationalising existing S&D clauses in agreements, strengthening and extending the scope of S&D in existing agreements and thirdly, making sure that there is adequate S&D in any new agreements. Each of these is important to developing countries, and none is being adequately addressed. In an effort to make progress, the S&D negotiations have been split up between Working Groups and committees, but this strategy will just lead to disarray. It also makes it more difficult for developing countries to take a strong and unified stand as delegates are spread out between the many groups and committees.

The WTO timetable is hard enough to keep up with as it is, without the added burden of having to track down the right negotiating room. Implem-entation and a real consideration of S&D treatment were the medicines prescribed to overcome Samit. But developing countries (without manufacturing capacity) have had no assurance for access to these medicines, just as they are no closer to getting access to medicines for HIV-AIDS under the compulsory licence provisions of the TRIPs Agreement.

These failures compound the fierce disappointment over the TRIPs issue: the US refused to sign onto the compromise TRIPs text in December which was the outcome of Herculean efforts to put together a compromise on when and how developing countries could import medicines from generic manufacturers. It is natural to suspect that the government is in the thrall of the pharmaceutical unions, and similar patterns of powerful lobbies shaping national trade policy are – sadly – extremely common. The US may be trying to focus all the pressure for the hold-up on the European Union, but it must take equal responsibility for holding up the negotiations.

The EU in the meantime, has no negotiating mandate for the keystone of the negotiations: agriculture. However powerful the evidence that agricultural liberalisation would bring great benefits to consumers in the US and EU, French and German government representatives have hardened their defensive position to protect the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Franz Fischler, the Commi-ssioner for Agriculture, has developed proposals to convert the worst of the trade-distorting export subsidies into other forms of transfers to farmers.

While it is not clear that this shuffle is anything more than a magicians trick, even these proposals have not managed to gather any momentum in the recent meeting of agriculture ministers. There is a chance that high-level meetings taking place this week in Greece will provide the European Commission with a viable negotiating position. If not, it seems almost certain that the Cancun meeting will be a damp squib. Of course, developing countries cannot expect to get something without giving something up. It would be wrong to assume that trade barriers in agriculture are asymmetric, loaded to keep developing country products out of the rich countries. Many developing countries have retained high tariffs, particularly in agriculture.

Similarly, with regard to subsidies, there level of support is not so different as a proportion of the national Budget, when you consider susidised access to water, power, fertiliser and other agricultural inputs that many developing country farmers enjoy. But it is clear that in the negotiations, it is basically the tariffs and subsidies of the EU and US that are on the table, not those of their poorer counterparts.

A fizzle at Cancun would be a disappointment, but not a disaster for the WTO’s director general, Supachai Panichpakdi. Seen as more approachable and sympathetic than his predecessor, a stand-off between rich and poor can only undermine the beleaguered institution that he heads. In an effort to hear a greater variety of voices, he recently gathered together a number of international NGO representatives (including me) to hear their opinions on substance and process at the WTO. For someone committed to improving the structure of his organisation, it would be a shame were the negotiations of his first Ministerial meeting to be lost in waves of protesters. This is what he risks if the US and EU cannot be united behind a commitment to multilateralism in international trade.

Copyright © pradeepsmehta. All rights reserved.