Catch-22 in the WTO

Published 17 April 2015 in:

WTO office building. Centre William Rappard in background. Photo: Sara Norling

On paper it is pretty clear what we have to do. By the end of July we must agree on a work program for the conclusion of the Doha Round (DDA). A program that will provide us with the guidance we need to be able to finalise negotiations during the autumn of 2015. This will give us the opportunity to conclude the DDA at the Ministerial meeting in Nairobi (MC10) in December. Some technical work will be needed during the first half of 2016, but essentially negotiations will have to end in Nairobi.

Right now the talks are picking up speed in Geneva and there is no doubt that some progress has been made. But at the same time a lot of work remains to be done if we are to adopt a work program in July. What is possibly worse is that a familiar destructive pattern is beginning to re-emerge in Geneva.

Negotiations between the 160 members of the WTO (in a couple of weeks Seychelles will become the 161st member) are bound to be complex and controversial. Topics like main priorities, level of ambition, the balance between developed and developing countries are some examples of contentious issues.

But one particularly frustrating issue is what we in WTO usually refer to as “sequencing”, namely in which order we are supposed to negotiate the different issues. And this is where the DDA firmly stumbles into a Catch-22 situation. There are a number of different topics that are being negotiated within the framework of the DDA, but most would agree that there are three core areas: agriculture, industrial goods and services.

But for a large number of WTO members agriculture holds a special importance. When the negotiations started in 2001 ambitions were very high and agriculture has been at the heart of the discussions since then. Therefore many countries argue that they see agriculture as a gateway issue. They will need to get more clarity on what the final level of ambition will be for agriculture in order to decide what kind of commitments they are prepared to undertake in industrial goods and services.

At the same time agriculture contains some of the most controversial and complicated issues that exist in the world of trade negotiations. It is therefore unlikely that all of the agriculture issues can be fully solved before MC10 in Nairobi.

This is where it gets seriously tricky. Agriculture is seen as a gateway issue and we need more clarity before we can get any real progress in the other important negotiations. At the same time agriculture is so sensitive it is unlikely that the most controversial issues can be solved before we enter the endgame. This is the Catch-22 situation that prevents us from achieving a real breakthrough in the negotiations at this point.

We still have a few months to conclude a work program so there is definitely still hope. But what we need now are more countries stepping up and showing that they really do want to conclude the DDA. In the negotiating rooms all delegations confirm that they are committed and flexible. Now is the time to actually show some of that flexibility.