Geneva: Luzius Wasescha, Swiss ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), likes to recall how negotiators once met for three weeks in the 1950s to haggle over tariffs on hats. By the time they finally agreed to open trade in headgear, men’s hats were no longer fashionable.
With WTO’s Doha Round, already the longest running set of trade negotiations, limping into its ninth year, the anecdote sums up the difficulty, if not futility, of trying to reach new deals to open trade in an ever more complex world.
Perhaps for that reason negotiations on Doha, launched in November 2001 to open markets and help poor countries prosper through trade, will not be on the agenda when ministers from WTO’s 153 members gather in Geneva on 30 November to take stock of the body and its work.
But for all the discussions on the future role of WTO, Doha is likely to dominate the three-day meeting, with most members wanting to see whether US President Barack Obama’s administration is ready to get actively involved in the talks.
“Like it or not, the whole world is looking to the US to bail out the negotiations,” former US ambassador to WTO, Peter Allgeier, said last week.
Obama’s White House has been preoccupied by issues from healthcare to climate change, and does not want to alienate unions and other supporters who see free trade as a tool to destroy American jobs.
Recently, however, Obama and his team have been talking about the ability of exports to generate employment.
Trade insiders say the US and other powers are not ready to enter the “endgame” that will produce a deal.
“I don’t get the impression that the major players are piling something into this that would change the dynamics,” said Roderick Abbott, a former WTO deputy director-general who has argued WTO members should quickly agree to a slimmed down deal so they can turn to problems from climate change to food security.
WTO director-general Pascal Lamy says the deal, which would cut industrial and agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies and open up trade in services such as construction and finance, is 80% done.
Political leaders have called for the Doha talks to be completed by 2010, a goal likely to be endorsed again despite a series of missed deadlines.
Geneva negotiators say it will take only a few tough political compromises—say on the extent to which big emerging countries such as China and India open their markets for manufactured goods, or the US cuts farm subsidies—to clinch a deal, and 2010 is possible. Activists gathering in Geneva for the conference argue the Doha Round, far from promoting development, will entrench the disadvantage that poor countries suffer in trade.
But developing countries themselves are calling for an “early harvest” of measures already largely agreed, from cuts in cotton subsidies to duty-free, quota-free access for their goods, aware that what is on the table is better than no deal at all.