Geneva: Lawmakers from around the world doubt a meaningful global trade agreement will be struck in 2011 and fear the rapid growth of self-serving side deals could kill it off completely.
Their frustrations come as the latest push to improve a draft global deal text by Easter drew a blank in agriculture discussions, and as a months-old initiative by the European Union to help flood-hit Pakistan hit the buffers.
Delegates at the annual World Trade Organization (WTO) parliamentary conference in Geneva lauded the concept of free trade, saying the existing structure held back protectionism during the 2008 financial crisis.
But although these members of national parliaments mostly lack direct influence on the talks themselves, those who would bet against completion of the decade-old Doha round by the WTO’s end-2011 target were easy to find.
“I hope it happens, but realistically speaking I don’t think it will conclude this year,” said Se Hwan Jang, an opposition Democratic Party member of South Korea’s national assembly.
“It’s very hard for all 153 member countries to reach a consensus .... (and) the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade pacts will undermine the process,” he said.
Bilateral and regional agreements have boomed since the Doha talks stalled in 2008. Governments have found themselves jostling for position as the balance of trading power shifts to high-growth countries like China and Brazil, and as tariffs and other barriers to free trade grow into the void left by the failing global talks.
Multilateral trade deals are designed to benefit all parties, but in bilateral and regional deals, weaker countries tend to get a rougher deal, or simply get excluded, and the proliferation of these pacts is seen as escalating protectionism.
“If it all (Doha) takes so long we have little choice,” said a delegate from Costa Rica, which has bilateral pacts with the US, EU and China.
South Korea and the EU say a bilateral deal they hope to strike in 2011 should be a building block for a global one, not a hindrance to it, but a host of others are seen as detrimental to the spirit of global trade.
“Do we have to choose? (between bilateral/regional deals and a multilateral one). No. But there is a growing number of shallow regional trade agreements that risk increasing discrimination or diverting trade between regions,” said Ditte Juul-Joergensen, acting director of WTO Affairs at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Trade.
WTO director-general Pascal Lamy warned recently that the pace of talks has been too slow to reach the year-end deadline.
Negotiators battling to rescue the talks now want to produce a working text by Easter -- a deadline now just a month away and already put back from the end of March.
But David Walker, chairman of the pivotal Doha agriculture talks, told negotiators on 18 March their 10 days of talks had ended without progress, according to delegates.
Those discussions are due to restart in early April 2011, and the agriculture text is said to be in better shape than other parts of the draft package. Nevertheless, the WTO is worried.
“Bluntly put, there’s a need for urgent acceleration of work at all levels,” Yonov Frederick Agah, Nigeria’s ambassador to the WTO told the conference.
Agah, recently appointed to chair the WTO’s crucial dispute-solving body, said work so far “lacks the substantive breakthroughs,” needed at this stage.
Agah would not be drawn on whether turmoil in the Arab world and the devastating earthquake in Japan will further slow the Doha process in any direct way.
But one delegate said the failure of the WTO to react effectively to world events was part of its problem.
This week the EU suffered its latest failure to push through a tariff waiver to help Pakistan recover from the devastating floods of 2010. In a plan that dates back to October, it wants to suspend tariffs on goods covering about a quarter of Pakistan exports to the EU.
But according to a source in a 21 March meeting, the vote, which has to be unanimous, was held up by countries that compete with Pakistan.
“If the WTO cannot agree on a waiver for Pakistan or countries affected by natural disasters, then I believe it has little chance of progressing on Doha,” said Robert Sturdy, a European member of Parliament from Britain who backed the plan.
“It destroys the respectability of the whole Doha process”.