WTO Farm Talks Chair Maps Progress Ahead of October Mini-Ministerial

21 September 2017

The Kenyan ambassador who chairs the WTO’s negotiations on agriculture has issued a new informal paper mapping the “state of play” in the talks ahead of a ministerial-level meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, in early October.

Trade sources told Bridges that the Marrakesh meeting will be key in determining which topics are likely to remain on the agenda for the global trade body’s eleventh ministerial conference, which is due to take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 10-13 December.

Over 40 delegations are due to attend the Morocco gathering, sources said, counting the EU as one. This would make it the largest in a series of WTO-focused mini-ministerial events held throughout the year in Paris, Oslo, and the Swiss town of Davos.

Agriculture is widely seen as a central topic in any eventual outcome from the Buenos Aires meeting. However, the chair, Ambassador Stephen Ndung’u Karau, cautioned that more work is needed to overcome gaps between countries’ negotiating positions.

“Some people dream of success, while others wake up and work hard at it,” said Karau, quoting the British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, in remarks at an informal negotiating meeting on 13 September that was open to all WTO members.

The chair cautioned that time was short if members wanted to achieve progress, given the 12 calendar weeks remaining until the Buenos Aires ministerial.

Washington in particular remains “deeply sceptical” of the prospects for progress in many areas, according to a Geneva trade official familiar with the 13 September meeting. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer reaffirmed on Monday that he considered it “unlikely” the ministerial conference would lead to negotiated outcomes. (See related story, this issue)

Karau also hosted separate dedicated sessions last Friday on two other agricultural trade topics that developing country members have raised at the WTO. These sessions reviewed progress on the questions of public food stockholding and a “special safeguard mechanism” that developing countries would be able to use to raise tariffs temporarily in the event of a sudden import surge or drop in prices. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 July 2017)

Six negotiating topics

Karau’s paper groups negotiating topics under six headings, in addition to public stockholding and the special safeguard mechanism.

These include domestic support; cotton; market access; export prohibitions and restrictions; export subsidies and other “export competition” issues; and sanitary and phytosanitary measures, meaning issues related to food safety and to plant and animal health.

The chair told the meeting that many members continue to see an outcome on agricultural domestic support as a priority for Buenos Aires, but disagree over how to achieve this.

Although there was broad agreement over the level of ambition in this area, Karau said that “significant gaps” remained over when and how to realise this. Some major trading powers have now submitted negotiating papers setting out their views on how to proceed, including a joint proposal from the EU, Brazil, and other co-sponsors, as well as another joint submission from China and India. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2017)

The chair also said that he planned to convene further talks on cotton once the C-4 group of West African countries submit their negotiating proposal, which they are currently finalising. The group, composed of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mali, has long called for reforming cotton subsidies and other measures affecting the sector.

Karau reported that a substantial outcome on market access “is not feasible” for the ministerial conference, although some countries still wanted to address this topic later on as part of a work programme, which would need to be negotiated and agreed on.

He was more optimistic about the prospects for progress on transparency in export restrictions, which he said was “doable.” Singapore had proposed addressing this area in a July negotiating submission. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 July 2017)

Although some countries favoured further talks on export competition, this was not a priority for Buenos Aires, the chair said.

Finally, while Brazil and Argentina had circulated a discussion paper on sanitary and phytosanitary measures, some countries said that this should be discussed in the WTO committee dealing with these matters instead of the agriculture negotiations.

Public food stockholding

In his “state of play” paper, the chair reported that all members agree on the need for a “permanent solution” on public stockholding by the time of the ministerial conference. This permanent solution would be in response to the difficulties that some developing countries face under WTO rules when buying food at subsidised prices.

Although there are no limits on the food that governments can provide to poor consumers or keep in public stocks, subsidised purchases from producers must be counted towards countries’ overall limits on domestic agricultural support at the WTO.

Countries in the G-33 developing country coalition, which includes China, India, and Indonesia, have argued that food price inflation has undermined their ability to buy food at minimum prices without falling afoul of WTO rules. The G-33 members all share concerns about the potential effects of liberalisation on their large populations of smallholder farmers.

While G-33 countries have proposed exempting these purchases from counting towards WTO limits, agricultural exporting countries say that they would rather build on an agreement in this area that was reached at the organisation’s Bali ministerial conference in 2013.

Karau was due to hold further small group meetings with concerned members on the subject, Geneva trade officials said.

G-33: new paper on safeguards

The G-33 also tabled a new negotiating submission on safeguards, which proposes that WTO members at least agree in Buenos Aires to establish a price-based or volume-based safeguard mechanism.

The G-33 said that a mechanism allowing developing countries to address surges in import volumes or price depressions was “long overdue,” and have included draft legal texts in their paper as a basis for further negotiation.

However, sources told Bridges that the session convened by Karau was relatively short, with agricultural exporting countries making no comment on the new submission. These countries have traditionally linked talks on the new special safeguard mechanism with the issue of agricultural market access.

Various G-33 countries are also reportedly still considering their negotiating position on this issue, with several indicating that they may present their own views on the topic later on.

Eyes on Marrakesh

One trade official told Bridges that the Marrakesh talks would be decisive in determining which issues would make it on to the Buenos Aires meeting agenda.

Sources also said that some delegations were still trying to finalise negotiating submissions to be tabled soon, in addition to the C-4 group’s cotton proposal. Others observed that it would be hard to make progress without more active engagement from the US.

In particular, issues such as agricultural domestic support would be difficult to solve unless there was agreement to do so in a multilateral setting, one source said.

Other sources acknowledged the potential value of agreeing on a package of topics for a future work programme, given that WTO members were unable to endorse negotiating mandates at the organisation’s Nairobi ministerial conference in 2015. (See Bridges Daily Update, 19 December 2015)

In his remarks in Washington on Monday, Lighthizer indicated that he hoped the ministerial conference would decide on the trade body’s upcoming agenda, without being specific as to what that might entail. However, many other WTO members would see a lack of more tangible outcomes in Buenos Aires itself as falling short of their ambition.

ICTSD reporting. 

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