By Raghav Narsalay in Cancun
A Whiff of fresh air…
The general impression that one got from the happenings during the second day is that the developing countries have courageously postured on agriculture and Singapore issues. Even folks from the WTO Secretariat are heard saying that they have never seen developing countries performing like this. Suddenly developing countries have become aggressive as they notice that their political alliance on agriculture is attracting more WTO Members.
As we would see below, the press conference on Singapore issues addressed by an alliance of 16 countries caught a lot of attention and praise from the press. The posturing was solid and the choice of words quite precise.
The influential developing countries, with the exception of Argentina and Thailand, have not yet organized independent press conferences and have preferred to organize them as groups of countries. It is expected that countries would start organizing their individual press conference from tomorrow when they start translating their postures into draft positions.
The language of the US and EU guys that spoke to the press seemed to be less ambitious. At times they were even taking positions that did not match with their positions yesterday. In fact the word "ambitious" that was so commonly used yesterday did not appear once in the press briefings by the US today.
The G-21 Delegations in Cancun have resiliently continued to be together on the second day of the Ministerial Conference. The press conference of the G-21 in the evening in which Ministers of Brazil, South Africa and Ecuador spoke, only reflected the growing watchfulness of the Members towards any pulls and pushes from the EU and the US. There are stories pouring that the US has been trying to push Ecuador and Brazil to dilute their positions. Furthermore there is also information that the USDA guys have started approaching African countries individually.
After discussing strategies at the meeting hosted by India in the morning, the G-21 Ministers approached the Facilitator of the Agriculture Working Group (Minister of Singapore) to sound their positions on agriculture and to confirm that the Chairman Castillo’s text is not the only text on the basis of which negotiations on agriculture would take place.
The US and the EU too have not wasted any time in approaching the Singapore Minister to sound their positions. Speaking to the press the US trade negotiator Peter Allgeier said that the "US has been closing working with the Facilitator" and he expects that by tomorrow the Singapore Minister would be in a position to come out with a summary of concerns to be presented to the Membership.
Speaking about the US relationship with the EU on agriculture issues, Allgeier mentioned that the US has not compromised on its positions and "that the paper" pushed by the EU and the US "was an effort to move forward". Does this ring a bell?
One could make out from his language that the US is no more taking the G-21 lightly. This in fact calls for the G-21 Members to be more watchful.
As per the G-21, the countries belonging to the specific products-special safeguard measures (SP-SSM) group have yet to approach the G-21 with any specific demand and the bilateral discussions that have taken place between countries belonging to each of these groups on agriculture have not been controversial yet.
A new group of 9 countries has emerged under the leadership of Japan which is not interested to cap their tariffs on agriculture and do not want to change their existing tariff rate quota structures.
Non Agriculture Market Access (NAMA)
Speaking to the press the EU Chief Trade Negotiator on NAMA, made it clear that the EU is making serious efforts to address "needs and expectations" of countries specifically in the area of reciprocity and special and differential treatment vis-เ-vis tariff reductions. At the same time he also made it clear that DDA did not imply "Don’t Do Anything" and therefore wanted to be clear that EU’s posture should not be misinterpreted as a posture that would allow developing countries to not reciprocate at all.
The press conference of the 16 countries that have come together to take a common position on Singapore issues stole the show. The press simply loved every entertaining moment. Rafhida Aziz, the Malaysian Trade Minister who is going to lead this grouping did not lose on any opportunity to reflect her exuberance about the creation of such a "strong" Group. The 16 Member countries of this group are: Bangladesh (on behalf of least developed countries), Botswana, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jamaica (on behalf of the Caribbean Community), Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, Tanzania, Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The press release of this coalition mentioned that the countries after meeting on 10th September "expressed concerns about the impact of multilateral rules on these new issues on their domestic policies and were yet to fully comprehend the implication of having WTO rules on these issues. The issues are technical and complex and some of them are quite unrelated to trade… As such there is no explicit consensus on the commencement of negotiations on modalities. They agreed to transmit these views to the facilitator for the new issues, together with the proposed language for the continuation of the clarification process to be incorporated into the Final Text emanating from the Fifth Ministerial."
In her maiden address to the press, Rafhida Aziz said that there is a clear need to de-link success of negotiations on agriculture from negotiations on Singapore issues. She was categorical there does not exist any "soft option" any "trade off" that this group was interested in and said that the "Group would no longer sit at the corridors waiting for sweeteners."
The interesting part of this press conference was no other Minister spoke. At the same time it was quite strategic on the part of India (who could have easily accepted the leadership) to actually push Rafhida Aziz to take the leadership mantle given the role she has played in Singapore and Cancun.
Interestingly being only a Member of such a Group also suits Indian delegation which has been permitted by the Cabinet of Ministers to "unbundle" Singapore issues if required. The firm position taken by the Group of countries on not allowing unbundling of Singapore issues could put India in a very embarrassing position, especially if it would have accepted leadership of the Group.
Answering a question from the press, the EU Chief Negotiator on Singapore issues mentioned that the EU position on Singapore issues was not only a negotiating position but was a position that was based on "good faith" of the EU stakeholders. Asked if Singapore issues could lead to a stalemate at Cancun, he opined that he did not feel so and that negotiators should not approach these issues with this notion.
Responding to the question on unbundling he said that Singapore issues are "intellectually distinct as they have been treated in different paragraphs of Doha". This can be seen to be a much sobered down position than what was assumed yesterday by Lamy who impressed on the importance of these issues to be seen together due to the balance they created between market access and rules.
Varying interpretations of "explicit consensus"
The EU, Canada and India seem to be having quite different interpretation on explicit consensus a term whose interpretation is going to be critical vis-เ-vis non-commencement of negotiations on Singapore issues.
As per Robert Madelin, Chief Negotiator of the EU on Singapore issues, "explicit consensus is more than a consensus and occurs when all go out of the room saying that we do not challenge the deal". Supplementing his position without wasting any time, his colleague, Arenha Gonzalez mentioned "that is way all WTO Conferences have ended".
For the Canadian Minister Pettigrew who is the Facilitator of the Working Group on Singapore issues, "explicit consensus takes place when all the Members unanimously agree to a position on an issue."
Whereas for a Indian delegate, explicit consensus occurs when all Members agree to not only the thought but the text based on the thought".
It would be interesting to see which interpretation prevails and it is too early to comment on this issue right now.
Have we forgotten our implementation concerns?
It is quite sad to see that implementation concerns and issues pertaining to special and differential treatment are getting a step motherly treatment from their own proponents at Cancun.
None of the developing countries, including India made any noise when the Minister Derbez boxed the implementation and special and differential treatment concerns with other issues to be discussed in the Development Working Group. The Development Working Groups is amongst the five Working Groups (the other four being on Agriculture, Singapore issues, Non Agriculture Market Access and Miscellaneous) that have been created at Cancun to sort out issues.
It is really frustrating to note that the EU and the US have been successful to reduce the strategic importance of our concerns and now have reduced one more negotiating bait from our quiver. one does not how India could have allowed this issue to suddenly lose importance when it has been consistently fighting to give it strategic prominence since the inception of the WTO. The EU and Japan are clearly saying that they would only give developing countries something on agriculture if the developing countries agree to the EU and Japanese position of initiating negotiations on investment, competition, government procurement and trade facilitation (Singapore issues).
Let us hope that we are not adopting a wrong strategy by putting all our negotiating eggs in the agriculture basket.