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Post-Nairobi Analysis: Part One - What can the WTO do with a ‘Zombie Doha’?

Two World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conferences in a row have produced results, Nairobi last December and Bali two years before that. Will the member governments decide they have done as much as they can for now, or will they strive for a third productive conference when ministers next meet in 2017?

That is the question underlying the deliberations that have begun both at the WTO and between the Geneva delegations and their capitals.

More specifically: which subjects still on the table could be settled (including in agriculture), which can wait, and what could be fruitfully added since the WTO has to deal with new circumstances such as mega-regional trade agreements, protectionist pressure in response to recession and climate change?

Slowly, work has begun on the answer. Meeting on February 10 in Geneva for the first time since Nairobi, WTO ambassadors pragmatically avoided clashing on whether to continue with the WTO’s 14-year-old, and supposedly dead, Doha Round.

WTO members are already committed to settle one issue by 2017: on public stockholding for food security in developing countries. They are negotiating a more permanent solution than the one they agreed in Bali in 2013. That aim was reiterated in Nairobi.

The ministers’ Nairobi declaration specifies other topics to be pursued, including “all three pillars of agriculture, namely domestic support, market access and export competition, as well as non-agriculture market access, services, development, TRIPS [intellectual property] and rules” — that more or less covers the topics of the Doha Round. Ministers also opened the door to adding others.

As usual, agriculture is the centre of attention. The negotiations’ chair is already discussing with delegations how to produce new deals involving the “three pillars” of the farm talks (which began almost two years before the Doha Round). If the three pillars are still there, what has Nairobi changed?

Doha the ‘Zombie’

The Financial Times, New York Times and others have declared that the Doha Round is dead, full stop. That’s what the US has been telling them. But the WTO is never so simple.

In Nairobi, members agreed to disagree on whether to “reaffirm the Doha mandates” (as in the 2001 document that launched the negotiations, and subsequent decisions). With no consensus to continue, the talks cannot proceed; but with no consensus to end them, they cannot stop either. Perhaps the Doha Round has joined some other zombies prowling the corridors of the WTO, neither dead nor able to speak.

But — and this may come as a surprise to those who have not read it — the Nairobi Declaration says more than that. In paragraph 31, ministers pledged “a strong commitment of all members to advance negotiations on the remaining Doha issues”, followed by that list of Doha topics. Note: “all members”.

The declaration will guide WTO members’ work for the coming months. It contains more than that one apparent contradiction. The anomalies partly come from last-minute redrafting in a meeting that had already been extended by a day. More importantly they are the result of reconciling different views among WTO governments so that the text could be agreed by consensus.

It could produce a mess. Or it could turn out to be a strength.

 

Dead or not, Doha’s issues are alive

What Nairobi has done is to clarify that the name “Doha Round” is now being used to identify a structure or “architecture” rather than the subject-matter of a negotiation.

In Nairobi, ministers went on to say: “Many members want to carry out the work on the basis of the Doha structure, while some want to explore new architectures.”

The architecture has two main components:

  • a list of topics to be negotiated, and their objectives
  • a “single-undertaking” making the topics a single package to be negotiated and implemented simultaneously.

Nairobi has unbundled the topics and loosened the list. If the Doha Round is dead, that’s what its death means.

And yet many, if not most topics are still on the list: the Doha subjects are not dead. That satisfies, for example, the large number of members who insist that reforming agriculture has to remain central — including Australia, New Zealand and Brazil and most developing countries. Cutting subsidies to reduce overfishing is also a priority for many.

At the same time, the way these subjects are negotiated can also be changed and new topics can be taken up. This is what the US and to a large extent the EU were seeking.

All of which means the Nairobi declaration could be far more important than it first seemed. It allows WTO governments to continue negotiating and to adjust the agenda without confrontation over which approach is best. The opportunity has been created, the onus is now on governments to make it work.

Africa card expired

Some insiders attribute at least part of this achievement to the political skill of Kenya’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Amina Mohamed (pictured above with WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo) who chaired the Nairobi meeting.

She is said to have argued that if ministers disagree, they should spell that out in their declaration.

The unbundling has already been gradually happening. Despite their Doha Round origins, the 2013 Bali agreements on streamlining border procedures ('trade facilitation') and on developing countries’ public stockholding, the 2015 Nairobi deal on scrapping agricultural export subsidies, and duty-free, quota-free treatment for least-developed countries’ exports are effectively stand-alone decisions.

Groups of members have also reached updated agreements on free trade in information technology products (2015) and government procurement (2014), both outside the Doha agenda. Nairobi formalises that approach.

The challenge is to keep up the momentum. In Nairobi, the first WTO Ministerial Conference in Africa, no one wanted to upset Kenya and the Africans. That, and a degree of commitment to the WTO’s multilateralism, produced a moderately successful meeting.

Back in Geneva, the Africa card has expired. Are WTO members still really — and not just rhetorically — committed? Judging by earlier experience, the answer is mixed.

A few weeks before Nairobi, the EU joined others in proposing quick elimination of export subsidies, which many see as the most important outcome in Nairobi.

One is Uruguay’s WTO ambassador Gustavo Vanerio Balbela, who told Agra Europe: “This is something that has been hurting us for the last 30 years, and it’s a very good result. It means a level playing field in export markets, comparable to disciplines in industrial goods.”

That aside, little happened in Geneva in 2015 to suggest delegations were serious about creating anything.

This is Part One of a two part series of articles. Part Two will be published in the coming days.

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