Talks aimed at liberalizing global trade are heading into yet another crucial phase as the prospects of successfully completing a deal before the end of the year quickly fade.
Negotiators and officials with the World Trade Organization (WTO) say differences are narrowing on the key issues of agricultural subsidies and industrial tariffs, but a final deal on the Doha Development Round still remains out of reach.
At a meeting with trade union delegations, including Education International, in Geneva in mid-March, WTO Director General Pascal Lamy conceded that the negotiations are “entering a crucial phase.”
“The general consensus is that we should try to finish the round this year, but whether we can do that depends upon political and technical conditions,” Lamy explained. “The political conditions are there, we have the commitment from Members. On the technical issues, we are not exactly there, but the range of tariff and subsidy reductions that have to be made are becoming clearer.”
Lamy said that to meet the end of year deadline, negotiators would have to make a breakthrough on the key issues in April, but there are growing doubts that a framework deal can be completed by then.
Crawford Falconer, New Zealand’s Ambassador and chair of the agricultural negotiations, told the trade union group that he is skeptical an agreement can be reached in April.
“A deal could happen if there is a move politically, but the reality is that it could slide away very easily,” Ambassador Falconer said. “We could end up with that wistful feeling you get when running for a bus after it has just left the stop.”
South Africa’s ambassador to the WTO, Faizel Ismail, also warned that “differences are still very huge.”
“In agriculture, we have a very complex text with over 170 brackets indicating areas where there is no agreement,” Ambassador Ismail said. “The issues in agriculture remain difficult and complex.”
On tariffs for industrial products – the so-called non-agricultural market access (NAMA) talks – Ambassador Falconer admitted that the talks appear to be “seriously adrift.”
Ambassador Ismail echoed this, noting that deep divisions between developed and developing countries have emerged over the latest proposed text released earlier this year.
“On the range of tariff cuts that would be applied, the text proposes a formula that is far closer to what developed countries are seeking and it largely ignores the concerns voiced by developing countries,” Ambassador Ismail stated.
While the focus of talks remains on agriculture and NAMA, negotiations aimed at liberalizing the trade in services — including education services — are pressing ahead.
Bilateral GATS negotiations were held the week of March 10, but officials say there was little progress as many delegations continue to await the outcome of other talks before deciding what trade-offs can be made between agriculture, industrial tariffs and services.
Meanwhile, in an effort to advance the services talks, plans are being finalized for a so-called “signaling conference” to take place sometime in the spring at the same time as trade ministers gather in Geneva to discuss agriculture and industrial tariffs.
While specific details are still be worked out, the conference will require countries to “signal” in which service sectors they are prepared to make further concessions. U.S. and E.U. officials have already warned that unless other countries make sufficient improvements in their services offers, they will not be able to conclude a deal on agriculture and non-agricultural market access.
While supporting the idea of a signaling conference in principle, many developing countries remain wary of the intent.
Ambassador Ismail said South Africa would be strictly opposed to any attempts at the conference to create “benchmarks” for the GATS negotiations, such as requiring countries to bind their existing levels of liberalization.
“This would completely change the nature of the GATS negotiations from a voluntary approach where each country decides where they will make commitments, to a negative list process and we will not accept that,” he said.
Both Ambassadors Ismail and Falconer also indicated that deep divisions remain over attempts to negotiate new GATS restrictions on domestic regulation — rules intended to prevent countries from using qualification requirements, licensing procedures and technical standards to restrict trade.
“I think members need to have a realistic expectation of an outcome in services and we won’t see big liberalization in services in this round,” Ambassador Falconer said. “Services liberalization is important, but not at the price of sound regulatory regimes or public services.”