Bridges Ministerial Report #2 | Pre-Ministerial Coverage

18 May 1998

Many countries and groups of countries have announced their initial positions regarding the second WTO Ministerial Meeting, as well as the negotiations that are scheduled to start in the year 2000. While the scope of those negotiations will be decided at the 1999 Ministerial, the May meeting will be an important stepping stone.

Views on 1998 Ministerial

Developing countries have stated their determination to resist using the meeting for widening the scope of the negotiations and reviews foreseen in the WTO's ‘built-in agenda', which comprises new liberalisation talks in two principal areas: agriculture and services. Instead, they have called for the 1998 Ministerial to focus on the implementation of existing agreements, whether those agreements are achieving their objectives and whether their benefits are balanced. Assessments of the implementation of the agriculture and textile agreements are of particular interest to developing countries.

At a workshop for African chief trade negotiators held in March, Zimbabwe's Industry and Commerce Minister Nathan Shamuyrira said that African countries should brace themselves for ‘a big fight' and not let themselves to be ‘dragged into a new round before the items on the agenda are completed and implemented'.

Meeting in Paris in late April, trade ministers of the EU, US, Japan and Canada (the so-called Quad countries) agreed that ‘the 1998 WTO Ministerial should set in motion a process that would enable decisions to be taken in 1999 on the scope and modalities of further liberalisation, and that it should encompass the subjects of the WTO's built-in agenda, issues arising from decisions made at the Singapore Ministerial, and further issues of interest to members, including remaining barriers to trade in industrial products.'

At the Quad meeting, the EU was the strongest advocate for leaving the door open for new issues to be included on the agenda. Japan backed the approach more cautiously while the US and Canada have apparently not yet decided just how wide-ranging they would like the future trade talks to be.

Issues for the Post-2000 Round

Development concerns: While developing countries in general resist any additions to the built-in agenda of post-2000 negotiations, the WTO's special treatment provisions may provide them with a bargaining chip. Egypt and India have already requested that informal talks be undertaken to review the application of WTO provisions in favour of developing countries.

Agriculture: The Cairns group of agricultural producers on 3 April said that the next round of agricultural negotiations should result in a complete ban on farm export subsidies. It also called for substantial progress in improving market access through the reduction of tariffs and non-tariff measures, which should not ‘diminish the size and value of market access opportunities, particularly in products of special interest to developing countries'. Another Cairns goal is major reductions in trade-distorting internal supports, the group said. The Cairns Group includes Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay.

Millennium Round: The EU, where agriculture is a particularly sensitive topic, is by far the keenest proponent of broad-based post-2000 negotiations, dubbed the ‘Millennium Round'. Sir Leon Brittan, the EU's Trade Commissioner, has proposed starting negotiations between the EU and the US on removing technical barriers to trade, eliminating industrial tariffs by 2010, creating a free trade area in services, as well as liberalising government procurement, intellectual property and investment. This so-called New Transatlantic Marketplace (NTM) initiative aimed, in Sir Leon's words, to ‘kick start' the Millennium Round Ð was ‘designed to provide a provisional agreement between Europe and the United States which can only be implemented on the basis of other countries accepting what we propose. However, the NTM proposal failed to gain the support of all EU members at the 27 April EU Council meeting where France, backed by Spain and the Netherlands, was particularly opposed to bilateral talks between the EU and the US prior to the WTO negotiations. Nevertheless, the two trading powers are likely to discuss elements of the proposal at the EU-US Summit scheduled for 18 May. The United States has reviewed the NTM proposal, which does not include two of its key areas of interest: agriculture and audio-visual services. The Summit talks will probably focus on the technical barriers aspect of the original NTM proposal.

Electronic commerce: The United States has stated its interest in placing electronic commerce on the post-2000 agenda. The US proposal focuses on keeping electronic commerce transactions free from customs duties. Members of the OECD have expressed their support for the proposal, but many developing countries are against starting multilateral negotiations on the subject.

Investment: Following the stalemate on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment at the OECD (see separate item on page 20), many speculate that sooner or later the talks will start anew at the WTO. Speaking at the Canadian Centre for Trade Policy and Law in early March, WTO General Council Chair John Weekes said that he sensed ‘an increasing view in Geneva that it is desirable, and inevitable, that [current] work will turn into negotiation later next year'. At least Japan and Canada, both members of the OECD, have said they would prefer a multilateral approach to the issue through the WTO. At the Quad meeting, Japan's trade minister called for the WTO talks to include the built-in agenda, tariffs and ‘new areas such as investment'.

Transparency and WTO reform:  The Quad countries have requested the WTO Director General to ‘explore means within the WTO that would allow for enhanced consultations with civil society'. In addition, the trade ministers urged the WTO to review its document restriction policies and seek ways for speedier release of panel reports.

Environment: The environment does not figure prominently in the plans for post-2000 trade negotiations. However, Japan, Canada, the United States and European Union have expressed their support for a high-level meeting of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment to attempt to solve the CTE's long-standing stalemate.

The Ministerial Declaration

Brief Overview of Pre-Ministerial Positions and Issues The draft Ministerial Declaration, to be finalised and released at the end of the May meeting, is short and of a general nature. The ministers state their ‘commitment to the maximum possible transparency, which is also important in order to enhance public understanding of support for the multilateral trading system'. The declaration leaves open the scope of the future negotiations: ‘The work under the existing agreements and decisions will constitute the core of future activities of the WTO. However, it is also opportune to examine whether a more comprehensive agenda could be envisaged. In this endeavour, our objective will be to respond to the interests of all Members, while keeping the rule-based WTO system abreast of the latest developments in the world economy.'

WTO Ministerial and Millennium Round

Whether or not to engage in a new round of multilateral trade talks is to be a major topic of discussion when the WTO meets for its second ministerial meeting in Geneva this week.

The so-called Millennium Round has been promoted heavily by the European Union, which wants a fresh round of negotiations to start in 2000. The Uruguay Round of trade talks was concluded in 1994. Malaysia and a number of developing countries are opposed to a new round of talks, wanting instead to finish and assess implementation of Uruguay Round commitments.

"As for Malaysia, the issue before us is the question of economic recovery. We don't have time to concentrate on discussing matters relating to a new round of multilateral trade talks given the limited time," a Malaysian trade official said last week.

Germany's economics minister last week reinforced Europe's desire for a Millennium Round, especially as it relates to job creation. "Germany is more strongly incorporated in the world economy than any other nation. Every fifth [German] job depends on foreign trade. [The Millennium Round] is especially important for smaller companies, which are increasingly profiting from foreign trade," economics minister Guenter Rexrodt said last week.

According to an U.S. trade official, the U.S. does not support proposed Millennium Round negotiations. The official said a new round of talks is "not the way to go." "The only thing [the U.S.] wants out of [the ministerial] is. . . a very broad directive to the General Council of the WTO to look at the full range of substantive areas," the official said. President Clinton attended the ministerial meeting after the U.S.-EU summit on Monday.

No major decisions are expected to be taken at the ministerial this week. However, the U.S. is expected to push for a WTO dialogue on more public inclusion in the WTO process. U.S. officials argue this is the best way to promote the free-trade process, while sceptics wonder if it is not just an attempt to bring more U.S. trade union lobbyists and environmental groups--traditionally Democratic Party supporters, into the fold.

Pre-ministerial NGO meetings discuss agriculture, workers' rights, and the MAI

This past weekend, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) each held separate workshops in Geneva, Switzerland in preparation for the WTO Second Ministerial Conference and the 50th anniversary celebration of the multilateral trading system.

The IATP workshop on agriculture, trade and the WTO was attended by over one hundred NGO and farmer organisation representatives. It concluded that food security must take precedence over trade liberalisation and that deregulated and liberalised agriculture is destroying livelihoods and food security all over the world. Participants listened to the experiences of small farmers and peasants, and focused in particular on the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. They looked at where the agreement had reinforced existing problems and created new ones for food production and consumption in developed and developing countries. They outlined opportunities for changes in policy and strategies to move their agenda forward. Spokespersons from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, UNCTAD, the World Council of Churches and the South Centre provided inputs on how they saw the upcoming negotiations taking shape, what issues needed to be addressed and how NGOs could move the process forward.

On Saturday May 16, over 90 trade unionists and members of NGOs from 33 countries met at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) Conference to discuss the impact of world trade on union rights and the 15 million children worldwide who produce for the export market. ICFTU General-Secretary Bill Jordan encouraged Ministers at the WTO Meeting to look at means of linking labour standards with trade to ensure that abuses such as child labour are not allowed to continue. The meeting included debates with WTO's Director General Ruggiero; UNCTAD's head Rubens Ricupero; and Michael Hanssene, Director General of the International Labour Organisation, among others. During the WTO Second Ministerial Conference the 125 million-member- strong confederation lobbied government to ensure that trade does not ignore workers' rights.

On Sunday May 17, more than 45 civil society organisations (CSOs) from over 25 countries met under the auspices of WWF to strategize about the delayed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). They represented diverse national or international coalitions whose work over the internet and in capitals contributed to the recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) decision to delay negotiations on the issue until at least October.

At the meeting, organisations claimed that "the MAI is not dead, but rather going underground," referring to potential negotiations and talks on investment in the World Trade Organisation, to International Monetary Fund's operations, developing regional cooperation agreements such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the New TransAtlantic Marketplace (NTM). National campaign reports from coalitions in the US, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, France and other OECD nations conveyed a sense of urgency and flexibility. The organisations are committed to a plural approach and developing an updated joint NGO statement. According to Tony Clarke of Canada's Common Front, "in the next critical five months we will work on all tracks and in all fora to stop the MAI."

Clinton endorses call for high-level WTO meeting on trade-environment and calls for WTO openness

President Bill Clinton called for a high-level meeting of trade and environmental ministers to provide direction to future WTO environmental efforts, echoing a suggestion of the European Commission to the same effect. The quadrilateral (US, EU, Japan, Canada) coordination mechanism (commonly known as "the Quad") had already announced endorsement for the proposal two weeks ago.

In his address to the WTO Ministerial Meeting on Monday, 18 May, the President of the US said that the trading system of the 21st century must never become a race to the bottom in the fields of environmental protection, labour standards and consumer protection. Referring to the WTO agreement's preamble which explicitly adopts sustainable development as an objective of open trade, Clinton said that more must be done to harmonise the goal of increasing trade with that of improving the environment. President Clinton also referred to the need to modernise the WTO by opening its doors to the scrutiny and participation of the public. He commented that since the WTO was created for the welfare of ordinary citizens, it should listen to them. "I propose the WTO, for the first time, provide a forum where business, labour, environmental and consumer groups can speak out and help guide the further evolution of the WTO. When this body convenes again, I believe that the world's trade ministers should sit down with representatives of the broad public to begin this discussion," he said. In this context, he also reiterated the US's commitment to make the WTO dispute-settlement process more transparent (see related story in the April-May issue of Bridges monthly). President Clinton also expressed the US wish to see the WTO and the International Labour Organization working more closely together, and called for a high-level meeting to discuss these issues. "Our goal must be to help more people benefit from the possibilities of the new economy even as we ensure that the forces of technology and new trade patterns do not aggravate inequality or reinforce poor labour conditions," said Clinton.

Demonstrators protest globalisation

During the weekend before the WTO Ministerial Meeting, thousands of protesters from all over the world took to the streets of Geneva branding the WTO and the MAI - Multilateral Agreement on Investment -enemies. The demonstrators, loosely gathered under the banner of People's Global Action (PGA), were a mixed group ranging from farmers to Zapatistas, from health professionals to Brazilian landless peasants, from artists to trade union groups. Their actions were coordinated with those of tens of thousands of grassroots movement activists all over the world. During their mainly peaceful march through Geneva on Saturday afternoon, PGA demonstrators sprayed slogans and broke the windows of institutions such as fast-food restaurants and Swiss banks, which they see as symbols of the evils of global capitalism. A car with diplomatic license plates was also overturned.

Hundreds of other NGO representatives are meeting this week in the United Nation's Palais des Nations the same building as some of the official sessions of the WTO Ministerial and 50th anniversary celebrations, discussing issues relating to the WTO's work such as environmental protection; agriculture; gender and trade; labour issues; consumers concerns and transparency of the multilateral trading system.

Practical Information on the WTO Ministerial Meeting

The opening session of the Ministerial Conference will take place at 11 a.m. on 18 May at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The session will adopt the conference agenda. The substantive part of that agenda consists of an overview of WTO activities, divided between a review of the implementation of the WTO Agreements and discussions on future activities. Pascal Couchepin, Head of the Swiss Federal Department of Public Economy, will address the meeting. John Weekes, Chair of the WTO General Council, and Renato Ruggiero, Director General of the WTO, will also speak.

From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., the ministers will discuss the implementation of the WTO Agreements. The session may be continued the following morning if the schedule of 50th anniversary celebration permits.

At the time of writing, the exact number of heads of state attending the anniversary celebration was not yet known. The event will take place on 19 March.

The Ministerial Meeting will resume at 10 a.m. on 20 March with discussions on the future work of the WTO. At the afternoon session, scheduled for 3 p.m., the ministers are expected to finalise the Ministerial Declaration, as well as choose the date and venue of the next  Ministerial Conference and elect its officers. A short closing session will follow.

The opening and closing sessions, as well as the 50th anniversary celebration, will be open to accredited observers and will be relayed to the NGO Centre via a video link. The NGO Centre will be located at Room XII at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Room C-310 will be equipped with computers, a printer and Internet connections and three other rooms have been reserved for NGO meetings.

Contact: WTO External Relations Division, tel: +41 (0) 22 739 58 48, fax: +41 (0) 22 739 57 77, e-mail: peter.pedersen@wto.org.

18 May 1998
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18 May 1998
Revision 1. This Second Session of the Ministerial Conference of the WTO is taking place at a particularly significant time for the multilateral trading system, when the fiftieth anniversary of its...
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