The World Economic Summit held in Davos this year might be an important event not only because of the Summit itself, which undoubtedly is an important event, but for the meeting held on the sidelines of the Summit by trade ministers of some of the more influential member countries of the WTO who agreed to push for a breakthrough agreement in the Doha Round of negotiations by July this year so that the talks could be wrapped up at last by the end of this year.
The trade ministers “recognised the divergences in WTO members negotiating positions need to be drastically reduced” for any agreement to become possible and pledged to empower negotiators “to engage in give and take” so that compromises could be found.
The dates given by the ministers – calling for an updated draft agreement by July, finalisation of legal texts and commitment schedules by the end of the year – if stuck to, would signal an end to the negotiations. Participants at the ‘mini-ministerial’ gathering shared “a sense that we are in the end game and that if Doha is done, it needs to be done this year”. The ministers also agreed that 2011 constitutes “a window of opportunity” to conclude the Doha Round.
The trade ministers meeting was hosted by the Swiss Minister of Economy. In his summarising remarks on 29 January he said what is obvious to all by the unending rounds of negotiations when he stated that: “The price for failure of the round would be too high for each of us and the multilateral system as a whole,” pointing to concerns raised about weakened multilateral rules, increased protectionist pressures and further growth in the number of divergent regional and bilateral trade agreements.
The trade ministers, who represented the big and the small nations, included those from China, Brazil, India, US and the EU, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Peru. The trade ministers meeting during the Economic Summit is a regular feature and the Doha Round conclusion has been high on the agenda in the previous meetings. However, differences were too wide for the ministers to agree even on how to instruct their negotiators on how to arrive at compromises.
In this regard, this year’s meeting is a definite move forward although differences are still very deep. The demand of developed countries for the large emerging economy countries to reduce their tariffs and farm subsidies is still not acceptable to the emerging economies, which are of the view that the developed countries’ request for deeper market access is out of proportion.
However, the Swiss Minister’s statement indicates that they do recognise the differences when he said, “there is a need for a reassessment of positions” and that ministers showed “readiness to engage in striving for a more ambitious result in all areas of the negotiations while building on progress reached so far” and agreed that “those who ask for more should also pay for more”.
The ministers also backed WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy’s appeal for stepped-up bilateral and pluri-lateral discussions in search of common ground, and pledged “to engage in the negotiating process whenever appropriate”.
Experts have said that if the Doha Round is not concluded this year after keeping it going for 10 years, they might as well discard it even though it spells doom for multilateralism. Activities in the WTO during the second half of this year will indicate whether the trade ministers were serious in their statements at Davos in January.
(Manel de Silva holds an Honours Degree in Political Science from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and has engaged in professional training in Commercial Diplomacy at ITC and GATT. She has served as a trade diplomat in several Sri Lankan Missions overseas and was the first female Head of the Department of Commerce as Director General of Commerce.)