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Doha keeps low profile at WTO talks

Since WTO accession in 2001 China has grown into the world’s biggest exporter and second-biggest importer Reuters

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is holding a ministerial meeting in Geneva this week to welcome new member Russia and discuss how to boost multilateral trade.

This content was published on December 14, 2011 - 15:16
Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch

But in view of sharp divisions and the current economic crisis, the blocked ten-year-old Doha round of trade liberalisation will not be a topic for negotiation during the three-day session.

The Doha Development Agenda was launched in Qatar’s capital in 2001 with the hope of creating an ambitious comprehensive deal that would reduce trade barriers in goods, services and agriculture, as well as unlimited access to Western markets for the world’s poorest countries.

But ten years later it remains deadlocked, as major trading nations such as Brazil, China and the United States stay divided on key issues, and governments are reluctant to make trade concessions in the current economic climate.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters last week that ministers would “certainly cover the Doha round” during their working sessions starting on Thursday. “But there will not be any Doha negotiations,” he added.

No one is willing to publicly declare Doha dead, however, and WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy is certainly not giving up.

“All ministers will tell you that they want to continue to end the round; no member will say they are tired and want to give up,” Lamy told French-language national radio on Tuesday.

He added that a “Doha-lite” was not on the table and instead members were moving forwards on certain issues and tackling some of the most difficult ones, rather than the idea of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

Round and round

But many observers like Cédric Dupont, professor of international relations at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute, are very pessimistic about the future of the Doha round.

“Some issues can be salvaged, like special treatment for least-developed countries, but not the main one: agreement on agriculture, services and trade goods between the big emerging countries and the US, EU and Japan,” he told swissinfo.ch.

“This is going nowhere and I can’t see countries making any promises now given the economic situation.”

Lamy compared the Doha talks with other difficult international negotiations, such as the recent Durban climate talks.

“It’s a bad period. The blocked situation is a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the international system, which is largely blocked due to the current economic problems,” he said

Lack of leadership

Lamy said the “major players” should show greater leadership but today’s crisis meant governments had a “tendency to withdraw into themselves”.

“Globalisation has an incredible capacity to create growth and efficiencies and get people out of poverty at unprecedented rates, as seen in places like China. But the global system is unstable and lacks controls. The ability to master the complexity of globalisation is declining,” he added.

If the WTO cannot achieve Doha, Lamy believes there will be a greater long-term risk of protectionism – a risk that has so far been avoided.

“The rules risk being defined elsewhere, bilaterally, which would benefit the elephants and not the small countries. The less states cooperate, the more difficult it will be to exit this crisis,” he added.

Despite his pessimism over the Doha round, Dupont said the WTO remained an extremely relevant organisation.

“It has a lot going on right now. And if member states actually met their existing obligations that would provide strong safeguards against protectionism. Signing up for more is very difficult for any country,” he told swissinfo.ch.

New members

With Doha not in the limelight this week, the focus will be on expanding the Government Procurement Agreement, a measure overseen by Swiss diplomat Nicholas Niggli, that could add $80-100 billion (SFr85-107 billion) to global trade each year, according to the WTO.

The accession of three new members – Russia, Samoa and Montenegro – will also be a highlight.

Russia, the largest economy still outside the WTO, had been trying to join for 18 years, until a Swiss-brokered deal with Georgia cleared the last major hurdle for Moscow last month.

Trade chiefs see Russia’s membership as a sign of the continued relevance of the WTO.

But Dupont felt it sent the wrong signal. “I don’t really see Russia as a market economy and able or willing to fulfil its WTO obligations. Letting Russia in is a very risky political bet.”

Meanwhile, China has been commemorating its ten-year anniversary of accession to the WTO.

Lamy told a forum in Beijing on Sunday that while China had shown remarkable growth since joining the WTO, the global economy now needed the country to step up as a mature trade partner.

Anti-WTO demo

A dozen organisations have announced a series of anti-WTO demonstrations, workshops and debates during the ministerial meeting.

The “Occupy Geneva” movement, the Forum social lémanique, ATTAC, SolidaritéS, and the unions Unia, SIT and CGAS, and anti-capitalist leftwing party plan to demonstrate against trade liberalisation on December 17.

They attack the “damaging effects” of existing trade agreements, “slim concessions” made to developing countries and efforts by the US to impose a “new agenda” which favours transnational companies. They call for a “radical change of direction” and protection of national industries and farmers from competition.

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At the table

Founded in 1995 on the basis of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) and comprising 153 members, the World Trade Organization (WTO) regulates trade relations between nations. It is the keystone of the legal and institutional multilateral trading system. It has an annual budget of SFr196 million.
 
Contributing to just 2% of world trade but with every other franc earned abroad, Switzerland considers the international regulations (legal certainty) upon which it relies as vital.
 
The WTO, in particular, is a forum where existing agreements are developed and new agreements on international trade law are negotiated.
 
Launched in 2001, the Doha Round addresses about 20 issues. Among them, trade, agriculture, industrial goods, services, strengthening of WTO rules, trade and the environment, and the development or protection of intellectual property.

The Eighth Ministerial Conference will be held in Geneva from December 15-17. In parallel to the plenary session, where ministers will make prepared statements, three working sessions will take place – on “Importance of the multilateral trading system and the WTO”, “Trade and development” and “Doha Development Agenda”.

The conference will also take up the accessions of Russia, Samoa and Montenegro.

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