By Nicola Bullard
Just two weeks into the war on Iraq, journalists and politicians were already starting to see the useful tie-in between the breakdown in transatlantic relations and the deadlock in the WTO. The timing is perfect: with just five months to Cancun, an agenda that’s simply not moving and a long summer holiday in between, it’s a good idea to start lowering expectations and looking for scapegoats.

The state of play in the WTO at the end of March is this: There is no agreement on how to proceed with the agriculture negotiations. There has been no progress in the implementation of special and differential treatment (a key issue for developing countries) and there is no resolution in sight on the application of the TRIPS and Public Health Declaration, hailed as the biggest gain for developing countries at Doha. The agenda is totally blocked and there is no sign of movement on any front.

The Economist (‘Will there be a breakthrough?’ 1 April 2003) pinpoints agriculture as the main sticking point and has no doubt about who is to blame. “The battle lines are clear – and they are uncomfortably reminiscent of the transatlantic dispute about policy in Iraq,” they write, adding, in case there should be any doubt, that “The French president, Jacques Chirac, stitched up a deal with his German counterpart, Gerhard Schroeder, last October to ensure that the CAP [the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy] would be protected for years to come. Efforts are nevertheless underway to reform the CAP, but if they fail, the chance of progress in the Doha talks will shrink.”

Clare Short, UK Secretary for International Development and a booster for the “Doha Development Round”, also hones in on agriculture and sheets home the blame for stalled talks to “some Member States” who are resisting CAP reform.

“If their view prevails,” she told the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London on 27 March, “the prospects for a success in the Doha Round will become very small indeed and the EU will be the guilty party in throwing away the prospect of a development round.”

The Financial Times’ Guy de Jonquieres (‘Enlightened cooperation has turned into indecision’, 30 March 2003) also blames the EU’s failure to push through CAP reforms as the stumbling block in WTO agriculture negotiations and is pessimistic that the Commission will be able to push through enough proposals to keep the agriculture talks moving because, he says “it is unclear that member states, France above all, will go along.”

These three commentators give us an insight into what the Anglo-American, pro-WTO, pro-trade world is thinking, and it’s very interesting.

First, the view is now widespread that the Cancun talks are teetering on a knife-edge. As de Jonquieres says “the WTO may face an agonising choice: to defer its Cancun meeting and risk further loss of momentum; or to go ahead and risk the event turning into a savage blood-letting.”

Second, the US – in spite of its persistent and deadly disregard for multilateralism – comes out smelling like roses. While The Economist, de Jonquieres and Short make reference to the hikes in US steel tariffs and hint that the US, too, should “open its markets”, the real opprobrium is heaped on continental Europe (that is, France and Germany).

Third — and this is very telling — the other 129 members of the WTO are virtually invisible in this analysis of what’s going on inside the WTO. In spite of Secretary Short’s heartfelt desire that the “development round” succeed and her conviction that trade is good for the poor, she seems to have no interest in the negotiating positions of developing countries, especially when they contradict what she knows to be good for them. (According to Ms Short, what developing countries need is a “compromise” agreement on TRIPS and Health, more market liberalisation, more foreign investment, and the chance to send their low-skilled workers to the First World.)

What’s more, this absence of developing countries as interested parties highlights the main function of the WTO — that is, to balance transatlantic trade relations — and when they go belly-up, so does the WTO. We know this already from Seattle where deep divisions between the EU and the US contributed to the collapse of the ministerial. Developing countries are mere spectators.

Finally, what we are seeing is an attempt to re-cycle the post-September 11 hysteria which created an atmosphere where developing countries were bullied into agreements in Doha according to the line in the sand marked by George W. Bush: you are either with us or you are against us. Aileen Kwa’s report, Power Politics in the WTO (see gives a scrupulous account of the behind the scenes arm-twisting that helped “ease” through the Doha Declaration. Three months ago, these bullying tactics may have seemed beyond credulity but now they are a matter of public record as we have seen the US attempt to buy support for the war.

In her address to the Royal Institute, Clare Short made a gallant attempt to re-mount the post-September 11 argument:

“Just as the aftermath of September 11 helped focus minds at Doha on why trade and development matter,” she says, ” we need to deepen our commitment to a just world order if we are to emerge from the current levels of bitterness and division in the world. We urgently need stronger resolve to make the Development Round succeed.”

Coming from the minister who threatened to resign over Iraq, changed her mind and is now speaking as a Cabinet member of the government that embarked on an illegal war, against the will of the vast majority of its citizen, this really takes some beating.

* Nicola Bullard works with Focus on the Global South, based in Bangkok, Thailand.