Geneva: Trade ministers will meet in New Delhi this week to inject new impetus into the faltering Doha Round trade talks in the run-up to the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
The aim, according to host India, is to “re-energize” the Doha talks, now in their eighth year, and set a timetable for completion, rather than engaging in substantive negotiations.
Tough task: Commerce minister Anand Sharma has stressed his resolve to get trade partners to the negotiating table to secure a deal. Manoj Kumar / Mint
“As the objective is to resume and intensify the Doha Round negotiations, technical discussions are not envisaged. The discussion will mainly focus on the best way to spark the multilateral negotiations to move the round to a quick closure,” India said in a position paper obtained by Reuters.
But some of the main players may use the informal ministerial meeting to be held between 3-4 September to try and make progress on some of the thorniest issues, launched in late 2001 by World Trade Organization (WTO) members to boost the world economy and help poor countries grow through trade.
The Pittsburgh summit is likely to see a Doha deal as part of the cure for the global economic crisis as well as a bulwark against protectionism.
Many self-imposed deadlines have come and gone in the Doha talks as rich and poor states and exporters and importers fought over opening markets and protecting sensitive industries. But diplomats said the most likely outcome of the Delhi talks would be an agreement to aim for a deal some time in 2010.
For the major trade players one challenge is to align the contentious Doha talks with the political cycle—such as the US midterm elections and Brazil’s presidential election in 2010, the arrival of a new European Commission this year and the impact of the possible adoption of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. “So my money is on spring or at least first half of 2010,” said one EU diplomat.
Minister of commerce and industry Anand Sharma has stressed his determination to get trade partners around the negotiating table to secure an agreement, in contrast with the common Western perception of India as the spoiler in the talks.
But top Indian trade official Rahul Khullar told reporters last week that India would not compromise on food and livelihood security for the poor—reinforcing a stance of defending the subcontinent’s millions of subsistence farmers at all costs. Sharma’s desire for a deal has re-energized India’s opposition and thousands of farmers are due to march in protest of the meeting of 36 trade ministers through Delhi on 3 September.
India has as much interest as anyone in the global trading system umpired by the WTO as it fights seizures of its generic drugs in transit in European ports and considers boosting food imports to cope with this year’s disappointing monsoon rains.
Whatever pledges emerge from the meeting will add to a long list of political calls for a Doha deal that are in contrast to progress in the detailed negotiations in Geneva.
The Doha talks have made little substantive progress since a nine-day meeting of ministers in July last year to seek a breakthrough collapsed, partly over differences between India and the US over protection for poor farmers.
Former US ambassador Peter Allgeier, who left Geneva this summer, said negotiators were not budging despite politicians’ exhortations because they were not convinced the talks had reached the final stage where everyone shows their cards. “Until people think it really is the end game they’re not going to make the difficult political decisions which enable them to really start bargaining in earnest,” he told Reuters. “If we’re going to get a package that we can sell at home there’s going to have to be improved market access.”
Other trading powers say trade is simply not a high priority for President Barack Obama’s administration, as it wrestles with the economic crisis and healthcare. One sign of it is that the White House has not yet filled all the positions in US Trade Representative Ron Kirk’s team, including a replacement for Allgeier.
For now, whatever India, the US, the EU and other trading powers agree in Delhi will be portrayed as a success.
“Anything less would undermine the G-8 and G-20 commitments made to complete the deal next year,” the EU diplomat said.