Six chairs in search of an agenda

Published on: Financial Express, November 12, 2001,
By Pradeep S Mehta

Unlike Seattle there are no street demonstrations happening here, but some of the southern delegates, including India, are as angry as they were with the process. The 4th ministerial conference of the WTO maybe a success or a failure. Clearly it is quite early to say what is likely to happen at the end of the day, but there is a desperate desire of many to arrive at a consensus and go home without an encore of Seattle.

The proponents will make all efforts to ensure that there is least resistance in moving forward an agenda even if some countries are not happy. To begin with the process problem arose when the chair set up six working groups with unelected chairs to handle the contentious issues. Mexico would chair the group on TRIPs and public health; Switzerland on implementation; agriculture by Singapore; environment by Canada; new or Singapore issues by Chile, and rule-making by South Africa.

The chairs are all from countries who are in favour of a new round. They did not wish to select India or Malaysia or Pakistan or from any African country, South Africa being an exception. Pakistan too may change its spots, though they continue to be belligerent.

Participants at each of these six groups will include the heads of delegations—in most cases the trade minister–accompanied by only two officials. But this process will not preclude the chairs of conducting informal meetings to steer the working groups, and that is one strong bone of contention.

For the Latin Americans, the text has little technical problems, but certainly political. They feel that this can be improved if there is some more give and talke, and the difficult ones are handled bilaterally.

At Seattle the African unity was a major factor, though not as the most important one. Thus the powerfuls are working to break the unity, and also succeeding at it. Already Kenya has stepped down from the leadership that it had provided at Seattle with a demand on improving the TRIPs text. Now it wants that other countries in Africa should take the lead. Another influential African country, Tanzania, the spokesman for least developed countries, has come out in favour of a work programme which would have a development agenda, as the only way forward for the improvement of the lot of the poor. Indeed there is the refrain of negotiating any of the new issues: investment, competition etc.

Both the USA and the European Union have held press conferences announcing that a deal is necessary otherwise they would go their own ways, which would be more bad for the poor, then for themselves. That is having an effect. It would now depend on how many of the recalcitrant countries fall in. Things will start getting warmer over the next two nights.

Agriculture can be the dealbreaker. Indeed the US has agreed to the new issues being pushed by the EU and Japan, if the EU will agree to cut back its agriculture subsidies. The EU has expressed its dislike for the text on agriculture, but perhaps that may be public posturing. In his press conference, the USTR Robert Zoellick admitted that it may not be easy to push for its demands. The EU’s agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler rebutted, that the US itself gives huge export credits which will not remain unchallenged if the EU has to come down. The US subsidies are cleverly disguised and WTO-compatible.

Some of the developing countries, grouped under the name of Friends of Development Box have put forward a proposal for a development box to be included in the agreement on agriculture. Their concern is that the Indian proposal for ‘food security’ can cut both ways. After all the contentious European Common Agriculture Policy is based upon the concept of food security for Europe. These Friends include Pakistan, Cuba et al who are all a part of the Like Minded Group of Countries who had been leading the opposition brigade at Geneva, and somewhat at Doha. How will they continue to hold on to their unity and be able to influence the outcome, can only be seen over the weekend.

The outcome could be a sanitised version of the declaration without any mandate, which is what India will be happy with. The second option is a declaration with a mandate to set up a preparatory committee to design the contours of an expanded work programme, as happened at the time of the Tokyo Round. The third option is the current Harbinson draft (with little changes) which has something in it for every one but not everything for everyone.

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