New Delhi: Pascal Lamy, director general (DG) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), still nurtures hopes of organizing, as early as in mid-March, a full ministerial conference on the ongoing Doha Round of negotiations. He has the backing of a European Union (EU) determined to make sure the talks are held, but India has not changed its position and says it will not be dictated by any “artificial deadlines”.
All about timing: World Trade Organization director general Pascal Lamy at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Lamy hopes to organize by mid-March a full conference on the Doha Round.
The Doha Round kicked off at Doha, Qatar, in 2001 and it seeks to lower trade barriers across the world.
However, talks have repeatedly stalled over differing positions of the US and the EU on one side and developing countries such as Brazil and India on the other.
“India’s position is consistent: Please don’t hurtle towards disaster. While India is committed to early resolution of the Doha Round, yet outcomes matter and not deadlines,” said Rahul Khullar, India’s chief negotiator at the WTO and an additional secretary in the Union ministry of commerce and industry.
In his report to the General Council of the WTO on 5 Feburary, Lamy had said the members were on the last lap and have now started the final sprint towards signing an agreement.
“The timing of this process will be tight. Taking a look at the calendar, we can see that the horizontal process (refering to a ministerial conference) would have to come to fruition around Easter (March), to allow us to respond to what has now become a collective determination to conclude the talks by the end of 2008... The coming weeks will be an extremely intensive period for all of us,” said Lamy.
There are four broad categories on which WTO member countries negotiate: agriculture (or Ag, as it is termed), non-agricutural market access (Nama), services trade and rules which govern anti-dumping duties, and subsidies and countervailing measures.
After the rejection of the “July texts” or draft resolutions on Ag and Nama in July 2007, the respective chairs of the trade negotiation committees on the two categories are expected to come out with a revised text on 7 Feburary.
“India will not give away its leverage over Ag and Nama until it gets something on services and rules; and India doesn’t want post-dated cheques… We want something concrete on both,” said Khullar explaining India is not satisfied with the progress made on any of the four fronts for it to envisage an early conclusion of the Doha Round.
“As far as agriculture is concerned, there are still a large number of things which are in ‘square brackets’ or within known bounds, yet still to be decided. Not to forget the many thorny issues for which there is no text as yet—for example, a final list of tropical products. Surely, the ministers can’t be expected to decide which fruit falls under the ‘tropical’ category,” said Khullar. With regard to Nama, Khullar said the situation is even worse.
However, the push for an early conclusion of the talks at WTO is not just from Lamy, who now has less than two years left in his tenure as DG. EU, which is the world’s biggest trading bloc and also, ironically, India’s biggest trade partner, is one of the prime movers in this regard.
And EU has expressed satisfaction over the progress made among negotiators in recent months.
“We are very close to (an) agreement. However, a final effort and willingness to conclude (the agreement process) is now required from all partners. If we fail to come to an agreement by Easter, and lose the opportunity to conclude the (Doha) Round while (US) President (George W.) Bush is in the White House, then the situation becomes much more complicated thereafter and it may in fact take years to recover, if at all,” said a spokesperson for Peter Mandelson, the EU commissioner for external trade.
India, on its part, does not share EU’s sense of progress in the last few months of negotiations.
“The EU is eager to close the deal because it stands to gain the most under the current state of negotiations. So are Japan, Norway, Switzerland and Australia... However, we are not here for philanthropy. In agriculture negotiations, our interests are defensive... We will end up giving up some protection without gaining much. In Nama, the tariffs in the developed world are already down so there is not much to gain. And in exchange there should be gains for all. For us, the gains lie in increased market openings in the developed countries for the Indian service professionals and the rationalization of rules text,” explained Khullar.
According to Khullar, apart from disagreements on Ag and Nama, India has two other basic demands. One, that there should be a simultaneous creation of a text on services alongside those for Ag and Nama. And two, that on the rules side, the developed world should not disallow fisheries subsidy.
“The fishery subsidies given to small and traditional fishing community is a livelihood issue for us and we are not willing to compromise on it, nor are we willing to allow these topics to be deferred for some later date,” said Khullar.
T.S. Vishwanath, senior director tracking international trade policy issues at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), an industry lobby, says that the revised texts on Ag and Nama will be crucial in determining how realistic the Easter deadline is for the WTO.
“India and many other countries have been dissatisfied with the earlier texts. If the revised texts incorporate the concerns of the developing world, then we could see some positive movement. However, I don’t think much progress has taken place and historically speaking, we are aware that deadlines have not worked during the Doha Round,” said Vishwanath.
He also cautioned that since the WTO is a “member-driven” organization and not a “secretariat-driven” one, any outcome would be credible only when all parties are satisfied with it.