General Council: Lamy Calls on Members to Abandon ‘Red Lines’ in Pursuit of Doha Deal

22 December 2010

2006, 2007, 2008, and now, 2011. Trade negotiators at the WTO in Geneva will begin the new year with another push for an agreement in the long-struggling Doha Round negotiations, which have languished for the past two years. Succeeding where they have previously failed will hinge upon whether they are able to "move out of their comfort zones" and make new concessions, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told members of the global trade body last week.

"I call upon all delegations to ensure that your representatives, at whatever level, are mandated to negotiate. At this stage it is not enough to have answering machines around the table," he told a 14 December meeting of the General Council, the WTO's top permanent decision-making body. "There can no longer be any a priori red lines."

"The time has arrived to move into real negotiating mode," he added.

Lamy was largely repeating comments he made to a 30 November session of the Trade Negotiations Committee, the body that oversees the Doha Round negotiations (procedure requires a year-end report to the General Council). At that meeting, he  said that the Group of 20 leading economies and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum had given WTO members the "signals we need" to step up attempts for a deal in the troubled talks. The G-20 leaders' mid-November summit in Seoul identified 2011 as "a critical window of opportunity, albeit narrow" for concluding a Doha accord, the narrowness possibly arising from the US presidential election the following year. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 December 2010)

Intensive negotiations are set to start from 10 January, when the negotiating groups on rules, trade facilitation, trade and environment, intellectual property rights, and development will begin intensive sessions, followed on 17 January by agriculture, non-agricultural market access (NAMA), services, and dispute settlement. Lamy has asked members to search for compromise in a wide variety of formats - small groups, bilateral contacts, negotiating groups and his own consultations - in what he dubs the ‘cocktail approach'.

The WTO chief told the General Council he would convene an informal meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee on 2 February, preceded on 26 January by a smaller ‘green room' meeting of a representative cross-section of member delegations.

Members agreed that "at the right moment" they would need to develop "a more global sense of what the final package would contain," he said. Some members want this process, which would by definition involve comparisons across sectors like agriculture and industrial goods, to start before the chairs of the different negotiating groups issue revised draft agreement texts. Others think it should start only after the texts are tabled - members are targeting the end of March 2011 for the chairs to issue new texts. At any rate, Lamy said that members agreed that the timing of the assessment would depend on substantive progress in the negotiating groups - compromise proposals from members would greatly help the chairs draft new texts that garner wider support.

Lamy said that delegations recognised the need for senior officials and ambassadors to play a central role in the intensified negotiations. He stressed to the General Council that while members attempted to advance "on all fronts of the negotiation at the same time," care would be taken to schedule meetings to accommodate the needs of smaller delegations, and that there would be "every effort to ensure transparency and full participation."

While the new push for a Doha deal may inspire a sense of déjà vu among trade negotiators (and indeed among readers of this news bulletin), the first goalpost for the talks in early 2011 - new texts by the end of March - is relatively modest: in prior years, members set out to achieve ‘modalities' deals by Easter, although they invariably failed to do so.

Last chance saloon for the Doha Round?

For all of the many setbacks suffered by the Doha Round negotiations, political leaders have generally refrained from talking about the possibility that governments might simply give up. Old trade hands point to the fact that no multilateral trade round has ever failed to argue that governments will ultimately salvage some sort of agreement and declare victory.

Nevertheless, EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht suggested last week that countries might have to pull the plug on Doha if they cannot reach an agreement next year. In an interview with the Financial times in Washington, de Gucht said "If we don't anything by the summer ... Doha could be over." Following the signals from the G-20, the European said he felt there was a "good chance" for a deal, but "it could be the last chance."

ICTSD reporting; "EU official welcomes US trade policy shift," FINANCIAL TIMES, 17 December 2010.

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