Is time ripe to pull the plug on the WTO Doha Round issues?

The World Trade Organisation (WTO), director-general Roberto Azevêdo said at a recent meeting of Trade ministers from the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States in Brussels, that while the Doha Round core issues such as agriculture, market access and services remain on the negotiating agenda, there is a clear divergence among members on how these negotiations should take place: Whether under the Doha framework or under a new structure.

While developing countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa wish to keep the Doha Round open, given that many of their concerns have not been addressed, developed countries such as the United States no longer see a future for the round in its current state.

Although they agree on the importance of achieving the developmental mandate, their major sticking point is that the landscape of the global trading system has changed significantly since the round was launched. Emerging players like India and China want the framework reworked.

A look at the history of trade negotiations reveals that missed deadlines are not a new phenomenon in the multilateral trading system.

However, even by General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) standards, the Doha Round has drawn on for longer than usual.

While developing countries may be opposed to closing the Doha Round in the light of the issues that remain unaddressed, in the long term, keeping it alive could do more damage than good to the multilateral trading system, and ultimately to the chances of fostering a strong development component within the global trading system.

With each unsuccessful ministerial conference, the growing sense of collective disillusionment with the WTO is beginning to permeate trade policy and one of the most often-discussed effects of this has been the proliferation of regional trade agreements.

The recently agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is one such example. Unless decisive action is taken, WTO’s negotiating arm faces the risk of being reduced to a vestigial organ, a state that developing countries cannot afford.

The negotiating arm holds much more importance for developing countries, given that outside the WTO they do not have the clout to negotiate on a level playing field with larger developed countries.

There have even been instances in the past, where developing countries have turned and accepted free trade areas with onerous provisions on agriculture and intellectual property rights that they had previously rejected at the WTO.

As the relevance and authority of the WTO as a negotiating body are increasingly undermined, this perspective could begin to jeopardise the other arms of the body.

The only practical solution may come through a compromise from both sides. For the sake of maintaining the legitimacy and credibility of the WTO, developing countries may have to consider forsaking their short-term ambitions to keep the Doha Round running for the sake of making progress in the long-term.

Relenting to the closure of the Doha Round would not mean conceding defeat. Perhaps it is time to end negotiation rounds and, instead of a round of negotiations, implement a built-in agenda at the WTO consisting of existing issues of the Doha Round and new issues.

This built-in agenda would have to include the progress that has been made in the Doha Round including decisions taken at various ministerial conferences since Singapore (1996).

Instead of having one deadline, members should consider a series of them based on both developing and developed countries’ group needs.

Pragmatically speaking, opening up the negotiations to include new elements that developing countries have been opposed to may be the only way to get developed countries to the negotiating table.

While developing countries have expressed their opposition to bringing back the Singapore issues, perhaps it is worth reconsidering this stance in order to give them the much-need bargaining power to make substantive progress.

Pradeep S. Mehta
Secretary-general, CUTS International