Press reports from Washington this week indicate that the World Trade Organization’s 8th ministerial conference should proceed smoothly later this month. A draft of the chairman’s text has been circulated among the delegations, most of which voiced their satisfaction with the language aimed at addressing three areas -- the multilateral trading system, trade and development, and Doha Development Agenda trade negotiations.
Nigeria’s trade and industry minister, Mr. Olusegun Aganga, will chair the three-day conference, starting December 15, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Despite the satisfaction expressed by some countries, however, others voiced concern over what they considered an absence of specificity on how to move deliberations forward. Of the three areas, language with respect to the Doha Development Agenda appeared weakest, according to some comments.
Indeed, the draft text reportedly acknowledges that negotiations are at an impasse on Doha and says member countries have widely divergent perspectives on how agreement can be reached in various areas of debate. Consequently, it may be necessary to focus on individual issues where consensus can be reached rather than insist that the entire deliberative effort be concluded at one time.
Meantime, some agriculture negotiators expressed misgiving over the absence of a “standstill” understanding in the chairman’s draft text. The ‘Cotton-4’ group (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali) put forward a proposal last week at an agriculture committee meeting that would ask ministers to reaffirm several decisions made on cotton in the 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration. The decisions include a commitment to reduce trade distorting subsidies for cotton by more than the reductions on other agricultural products, which has faced strong opposition from the US.
Opinion was mixed at the meeting with respect to the Cotton-4 effort to have countries freeze, or bring to a standstill, current levels of domestic support for cotton. To the dismay of those supporting the proposition, however, the meeting was held on the last day before the deadline for placing items on the ministerial agenda for the December meeting, and it appears the Cotton-4 position will not be taken up.
The US cotton industry, meantime, insists that any commitments from the Hong Kong ministerial can only be addressed as part of an overall Doha agreement and that cotton should be treated no differently than any other commodity.
The US government position expressed by Ambassador Michael Punke, Deputy US Trade Representative, following a WTO Trade Negotiations Committee meeting in May, is as follows:
“The commitment at Hong Kong with respect to domestic support was that trade distorting domestic subsidies for cotton production would be reduced more ambitiously than under whatever general formula is agreed and that it would be implemented over a shorter period of time than generally applicable. We are now in a new context, with no generally agreed formula and no generally applicable period of time. Our discussion must recognize this new and starkly different context.
“I also hear frequent references to ‘the mandate.’ Let’s be clear on that point as well. The cotton mandate agreed in the framework agreement of 2004 states, and I quote: ‘Work shall encompass all trade-distorting policies affecting the sector in all three pillars (covered by the agriculture negotiations) of market access, domestic support and export competition…’
“If we are going to have a discussion about cotton, it must be a comprehensive discussion about all forms of market distorting practices in all three pillars. We would need to discuss both direct subsidization and other practices such as import licenses, sliding tariff scales, and reserves management – that produce very substantial levels of effective support for domestic cotton producers.
“If people wish to discuss cotton, everyone’s cotton programs must be on the table.”
Questions: Is there equity in treating the US cotton program differently than any other country’s?
Considering the Doha Development round of talks began 10 years ago, what are the prospects of an agreeable conclusion within, say, the next two to three years?