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WTO members are struggling to find consensus on a host of topics as the 15-17 December ministerial meeting draws nearer. Despite a plethora of proposals on possible non-Doha work, ranging from least developed country (LDC) accessions through to humanitarian food aid, deep-seated divisions between members continue to stymie progress on even a low-ambition outcome for the gathering, sources say.

Amid growing uncertainty over whether trade ministers will be able to reach agreement on a joint ministerial declaration, with one official calling it a “more and more remote possibility,” some trade officials told Bridges that the conference might now aim merely to produce a ‘chair’s statement’, describing some of the issues that ministers had discussed.

Although less authoritative than a collective communiqué by members, the tactic could allow the global trade body to skirt some of the disagreements that have emerged in the wake of countries’ recognition that the Doha Round of trade talks remains at an impasse.

Another option being considered was a “chair’s summary,” one official told Bridges; like the statement, a summary would be taken on the General Council chair’s responsibility. The last WTO Ministerial Conference, held in Geneva in 2009, also produced a chair’s summary at the end of the event.

A chair’s statement, however, could also have more binding elements in terms of “soft decisions,” the official explained.

However, a chair’s statement “might give the impression that ministers didn’t lend their full weight to the process,” one Geneva delegate acknowledged.

Plan for Doha remains unclear

While the ministerial meeting is intended to address both the WTO’s regular work programme and the future of the Doha talks, ongoing controversy over the latter question reportedly led to tense discussions between major economic players at the G-20 summit in Cannes last week (see related article in this issue).

The US, India, China and Brazil haggled at length over the precise wording of the final communiqué for the Cannes event, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

In Geneva, the same countries have also been locked in discussions over draft wording to describe what should be done about Doha, as part of a group of around 15 ambassadors that have been meeting on a weekly basis for some months now. While the group had reportedly reached broad agreement on language recently, sources said that this had encountered difficulties over new proposals to agree on a work programme for 2012.

“We should put [Doha] in the deep freeze for two years” said one official, who argued that negotiators could then return to the draft texts that were tabled earlier this year once the political climate had improved (see Bridges Weekly, 27 April 2011).

Others cautioned that, unless negotiators keep talking, the progress achieved so far could be lost completely. “2012 risks becoming a lost year” said one official, who argued in favour of a work programme of discussions on trade issues.

The language of the G-20 communiqué did provide some guidance, one developing country source noted; however, “how to operationalise” this guidance is where the tough part comes in.

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy is continuing to hold consultations with members on how to proceed with the Doha process, the same official added.

Lack of consensus on non-Doha proposals

With little consensus on the non-Doha proposals that have been tabled to date, the chair of the General Council has told delegates they should continue to seek agreement on issues for the ministerial – despite an unofficial deadline of 2 November by which members were supposed to have achieved consensus on their proposals and then tabled those items for the meeting’s agenda.

Individual committees can continue discussing issues under their remits in the weeks ahead of the next General Council meeting, scheduled for 1-2 December, delegates said.

The African Group has also submitted a set of proposals, including for a ‘standstill provision’ that would freeze domestic support for cotton at historically-low current levels. In addition, net-food importing developing countries have argued in favour of a work programme on food price volatility. The African Group has also proposed providing greater flexibility to least-developed and developing countries that wish to join the WTO.

The G-90, which includes the African Group, the ACP (African, Caribbean, and Pacific) Group, and least developed countries, is also bringing a proposal on mainstreaming development within the scope of the Committee on Trade and Development.

A cross-regional group of countries has also tabled a proposal to exempt humanitarian food purchases from agricultural export restrictions, based on language originally agreed by the G-20 (see Bridges Weekly, 2 November 2011).

Consultations on these proposals are expected to continue in the weeks ahead. The General Council Chair, Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria, is also holding consultations regarding subjects for “soft decisions,” or areas where ministers might provide political guidance, a Geneva-based official told Bridges. These discussions will focus on the importance of the multilateral trading system, along with trade and development.

Russia, government procurement appear on track

Currently, the ministerial conference is widely expected to approve Russia’s long-standing bid to join the WTO; the formal Working Party on Russian accession is scheduled to meet on 10 and 11 November to finalise remaining technical issues. Sources familiar with the talks note that, while there are a fair amount of technical details that are being discussed, there is no issue that seems unlikely to be resolved.

The announcement last week that Russia and its neighbour Georgia had reached a compromise deal resolving their disagreements on trade monitoring along their shared border removed the last major hurdle remaining in Russia’s 18-year accession process (see Bridges Weekly, 2 November 2011). The compromise was largely made possible via the mediation of Switzerland, which trade sources note was “instrumental” in achieving an agreement.

Last month, the chair of the WTO committee on government procurement also announced that the 42 countries currently finalising the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) talks were quickly approaching the finish line (see Bridges Weekly, 19 October 2011). Unlike the Doha Round of trade talks, the GPA does not extend to the entire WTO membership, applying only to those countries that choose to sign on to the process.

Other countries are also working on acceding to the agreement, notably China. Another meeting of the committee on government procurement is scheduled for 15 November.

Apart from these, “the number of decisions that members take will be small,” one delegate observed, adding wryly that the meeting risks becoming “the least successful ministerial since the last one.”

TRIPS non-violation, e-commerce return to ministerial agenda

Ministers are also expected to take decisions on e-commerce and non-violation complaints under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement; both of these topics have featured regularly on previous ministerial agendas.

In the case of e-commerce, ministers will decide whether to extend a moratorium on tariffs on goods sold for download online, such as songs; a ban on these tariffs has been in place since the 1998 Ministerial Conference.

TRIPS non-violation complaints concern whether countries should be allowed to bring WTO disputes on the grounds that the spirit of the organisation’s intellectual property rules has been breached, rather than just the letter of the TRIPS Agreement. A five-year prohibition on such complaints was put in place at the WTO’s founding in 1995, and has been repeatedly extended at ministerial conferences ever since.

Source: (ICTSD) International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development

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