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December 17, 2008

Another year without Doha

Now, 2008 has ended without agreement on the Doha round of trade negotiations. Today, the World Trade Organization held its last "Trade Negotiations Committee" (TNC) of the year.

TNCs bring together all WTO members to take stock of the state of play, and starts with a speech by the Chair--the Director General. Pascal Lamy's speech is here. He looks back at the past few weeks, when efforts to convince ministers from a small group of countries to agree on agriculture and industrial goods deals failed. Most importantly, he outlines ideas for the way forward.

What is clear from the discussions at the TNC is that technical negotiations will resume in Geneva as soon as mid-January, giving a chance for members to react to the new draft texts (see the ag text here, and the NAMA one here). The outstanding issues remain the same as after the July breakdown: special safeguard mechanism, preferences, sectorals, cotton, etc. (This leaves one wondering what really has been achieved through the tremendous pressure put on negotiators here over the past few weeks!) Meaning, without a change in the political backing of this round, there is little to no hope for Doha!

All eyes are obviously on Washington. Recent news that Xavier Becerra--previously identified by press reports as a potential new U.S. Trade Representative--was preparing to refuse the job have triggered new hypotheses. In a recent interview, Becerra explains that he thinks trade will be very low on the Obama administration's agenda. Guess that would not bode well for the Doha round!

In this context, WTO members today stressed that everything at the WTO is not about Doha. And Pascal Lamy, who insisted that he wants to "strengthen the relevance of the WTO as a system which is more than a forum of negotiations," highlighted two tracks of particular interest/concern:

  • The WTO could take on the task of monitoring trade measures adopted by countries in response to the financial crisis. This is new, but seemed to have a lot of traction among the main actors at today's meeting. It is not all that clear what this will mean, and what the consequences will be for members. A first report should be produced this week, and a first review among Members in January;
  • Some members suggested that the WTO should take on the organization of brainstorms "over issues which are beyond the scope of the negotiations but which relate to areas interfacing the WTO." This was a circumvented way of talking about the food, climate and energy crises. M. Lamy does not seem all that enthusiastic about this idea.

The WTO is clearly in a quest for political relevance. The lack of Doha progress in the midst of the current global economic crisis highlights governments' skepticism over the record of decades of market deregulation. They want to tread carefully with trade in the current context. The crisis is shaking the foundations of the organization. Refusing to acknowledge this will not help the WTO out of the deadlock. Members have a few quiet weeks to think about an alternative way forward.

Anne-Laure Constantin

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