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A one-star conference

Written by Sheila Page


Some conferences now openly advertise themselves as for networking (with the sessions only a minor distraction).  From that point of view, the WTO’s 7th Ministerial was a partial success. Only partial because too many potential delegates and observers didn’t realise that this was the purpose, and simply decided that the official programme wasn’t worth a detour. Countries sent small delegations; some NGOs came, and organised their own parallel sessions; the press ignored it, with fewer than a tenth as many journalists showing up as in Hong Kong, and about one article or interview per paper or channel. The 2011 Ministerial may emphasise the networking:  the closing statement on Wednesday openly looked ‘forward to our next get-together’.

The official outcome was yet another decision to do something in the ‘next three months’: there will be a meeting of officials, followed by one for ministers by March, to set out a plan to reach a conclusion by end-2010. No one (not even Pascal Lamy) showed real conviction that this would work. There is a stark division between the US, which wants to re-open even what is tentatively agreed, in order to reach ‘meaningful market opening’, and all other members who are long since reconciled to a Round that clears up some egregious faults in the system (e.g. export subsidies on agriculture), but concentrates on binding into WTO rules a large part of the liberalisation which countries have been undertaking in the decade since the first attempt to start this Round. Even if this division could be solved by negotiation, all agree that it won’t be, at least in the next couple of years, because there is not only no political will (the complaint since 2001), but no one to negotiate: the US itself has other more pressing priorities (health, Afghanistan, the economy, climate); for all international actors climate is the immediate concern (the FT marked the end of the Ministerial by publishing a supplement on Copenhagen); the EU will have its fourth Commissioner for trade in two years by January; the US ambassador to the WTO is still not confirmed, and it was striking how many of the trade ministers speaking in the official sessions were new, while the experienced ones had moved on (in many cases to the side conferences in Geneva). The official WTO summary of the working day on WTO activities ‘including…Doha’ took about 15 minutes and can be reduced to two words:  nothing new. 

Does it matter?
All delegates and observers noted that, in spite of fears and some worrying indications, ‘something’, and it is probably at least partly the WTO, has stopped countries from major protectionist sins in 2009, in spite of the crisis of output.  But does this show that we must do more or that we have done enough? In some areas, notably services, unilateral liberalisation has been extensive since the last Round, and even in agriculture systems like the Common Agricultural Policy are being reformed (even if not enough, and not fast enough), while regional and bilateral arrangements are reducing some tariffs. The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) will benefit from new preferences, by Brazil and China, as well as by developed countries.  Three risks emerged as the most serious: the unemployment effects of the crisis are still to come, and we may be too complacent about how well the system has performed; the plethora of free trade arrangements may be moving into new ‘WTO plus’ or ‘not yet WTO at all’ areas (labour, competition policy, investment, standards…), threatening a more incoherent system in the future; and the WTO may be lagging in adjusting to new concerns, notably climate change and the national and international responses to this. 

How can the international regimes for trade and climate change coexist?
This was the most discussed new issue, although the pessimism about a Copenhagen settlement almost equalled that about Doha, and indeed about the willingness of countries to accept any new multilateral obligations. The threat of unilateral actions justified by climate concerns (for example border taxes to reflect carbon usage) was often discussed, but so were the practical difficulties in designing or implementing such measures and the lack of clear national interests to protect. More difficult to deal with may be the many formal and informal innovations emerging from concerns about climate change where the trade rule implications are not recognised: labels which may be technical barriers to trade; carbon trading which is neither most-favoured-nation (MFN) nor national treatment; allocation of emissions permits which may subsidise.   As both trade and climate change negotiations move slowly, and as countries have shown in the past that they are reluctant to enforce trade rules when they accept their trading partners’ good intentions, there may be less risk of imminent conflict than some fear.  But there is a real gap in awareness of all the potential interactions.

Should and can the WTO be reformed?
Both the self-evident problem of an interminable Round and the lack of a real agenda to keep delegates occupied led to speculation about possible reforms. On some topics, everyone agreed on the end, if not the means: tighter supervision (maybe control?) of regional agreements; a quicker and more enforceable dispute process. On whether the process of negotiation needs changing, there were proposals from outside observers, but delegates were convinced that there was no realistic alternative. They insist that all countries must agree (consensus): this is how weak countries (not only developing) protect themselves.  Any form of fixed executive council would not be flexible enough to deal with the different groups interested in different sectors and would make it more difficult for newly powerful countries to emerge as leading players (as the EU did in the 1960s and as some developing countries are now). It is not possible to settle some areas or even parts of sectors where there is some agreement. It may be logical and tempting to hope that countries could be satisfied with the promise that if they gain less in this year’s negotiation, they can have more next time, but completely unrealistic to expect them to trust in this. 

Was the Ministerial worthwhile?
Discussions of bilateral problems or between aid donors and recipients; meetings with other international agencies; seminars for delegations and outside experts on the new issues in trade: all these went on, and many of the participants probably found their stay in Geneva useful. The need to pretend to be making serious plans about the Doha negotiations was more of a cost in time than a benefit to future trade.