WTO DG Pascal Lamy = Don Quixote?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 6/02/2008 01:37:00 AM
As I've said before, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has one of the most difficult jobs around in pursuing the successful completion of the Doha Development Round. Jonathan Dingel over at Trade Diversion points us in the direction of this useful paper on what has brought the WTO to its current impasse. Needless to say, there are easier jobs than selling further global trade liberalization in 2008 like selling copies of "Guitar Hero III" to the Amish or making Amy Winehouse look presentable. Anyway, my current miscellaneous ramblings have been jogged by yet another statement by Pascal Lamy that, yup, a deal is juuuuust around the corner. It may be inescapable as the WTO boss to have to make such statements at regular intervals despite resounding evidence to the contrary. However, it all begins to sound as if the WTO headquarters is not in Geneva, Switzerland, but in Don Quixote's La Mancha. So, let us begin with Pascal Lamy for the optimistic take on matters via Reuters:

World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy said on Sunday developed and developing nations could still wrap up the Doha round of talks on a global trade deal this year.

"I still believe it's doable this year," Lamy told Reuters on the sidelines of a meeting of trade ministers from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa. "We know how to get there. We need to cross this bridge of agricultural subsidies, industrial tariffs and agricultural tariffs soon, now, because otherwise we will not have enough time to cross this bridge to finish the road."

The WTO's Doha negotiations to bring down barriers to global trade are now in their seventh year but face a crucial test in the next few weeks, after which the U.S. presidential election may cause years of further delay. APEC trade ministers issued a manifesto in Arequipa on Sunday urging negotiating nations to take immediate steps to prop up the limping Doha round.

The round has sputtered and gained momentum a handful of times since it was launched in November 2001, snared usually on differences between developed nations and major developing countries like China and India.

"We have been working on these for years and years and there's now something on the table that with a few adjustments can materialize and I don't think that there is a sort of trade-off between ambition and timing," Lamy said. Intense negotiations this year have helped push along talks, especially on agricultural issues that are key to a successful round. In industrial goods, the other key hurdle, diplomats say WTO members are at last starting to engage seriously.

Lamy said countries were progressing and all the actors were ready to smooth out remaining issues, including areas like anti-dumping rules, fishery subsidies, environmental goods and environmental services. "Does this mean success is guaranteed? No. It remains a negotiation and we still have to try and clean the ground," he said.

I do not need to point out that Pascal Lamy has made nearly similar, rather optimistic statements over and over again. Facts on the ground, though, are rather bleaker than this. As Indian industrialist Rahul Bajaj notes, it is curious that the chairpersons of the agricultural and non-agricultural market access discussions are from developed countries in what is supposed to be a "development" round. As Agence-France Presse notes below with far more circumspection than Reuters, this is turning out to be a rather quixotic enterprise. It also appears to be a more accurate representation of the status quo:

The WTO has finally created unity among its 152 members -- but unfortunately for head Pascal Lamy, the only thing all states agree on is that the prospect of a new trade deal is still as far away as ever. Lamy said the publication of new texts on agriculture and industrial goods -- key sticking points for nearly seven years of torturous negotiations -- clarified remaining obstacles to an agreement in the Doha trade round. "These revised negotiating texts illustrate clearly where convergence lies among the WTO members ... we are getting closer to our end game," Lamy said.

The round was launched in the Qatari capital in November 2001 with the aim of reaching a deal by 2004. But it has foundered ever since, mainly over disputes between developed and developing countries on agricultural subsidies and industrial tariffs.

The WTO chief has long said a deal is "doable," and has made it clear he would like to see Doha wrapped up before US President George W. Bush leaves office early in 2009. But his was a lone voice of optimism this week as key WTO members made clear their objections to the texts, casting further doubt on the likelihood of any imminent breakthrough.

"The new draft texts on agriculture and manufacturing are disappointing," said top US trade official Susan Schwab. "Unfortunately recent developments in Geneva have moved the negotiations in the direction of less balance and less market access," she bemoaned.

The European Union has been a main advocate of trade liberalisation but there are increasing signs of hostility among some of its 27-member states. French trade minister Anne-Marie Idrac said that "we have a lot of questions" about the agriculture proposals and "for us French there's no improvement on market access for our industrial goods to emerging markets."

Ireland, where farmers constitute a significant political lobby, cast doubt on the wisdom of a deal at all costs. "Our view is you need substance. It's not about completing this just because there's six months left for the US presidency," new foreign minister Michael Martin said in Brussels this week. Asked if he thought therefore that it would be wise to wait until after the US election he replied "that would be my view, yes."

Developing countries were also forthright in their criticism, with Indian commerce secretary G.K. Pillai slamming proposed tariff cuts on industrial goods as a "total mess" that need to be redrafted.

The latest text on industrial goods -- known as non-agricultural market access (NAMA) in WTO parlance -- proposes that about 30 emerging market countries would agree to reduce their customs duties to a maximum level of 19 to 26 percent. The more the tariffs are lowered, the greater would be the right of governments to protect certain "sensitive" items.

WTO sources sought to portray the various reactions to the texts as just posturing, but other observers believe that time is rapidly running out for any deal this year. Lamy had initially hoped to bring ministers to Geneva over Easter to hammer out "modalities" -- the key numbers for tariff cuts that would form the basis for any comprehensive deal.

The timetable has repeatedly had to be put back as the WTO's 152 member states prove incapable of reaching consensus despite intensive technical discussions. "We've got the impression that the conditions are less than ever in place for a ministerial meeting in the short term that would meet European interests," France's Idrac said.

However, some ministers will hold an informal meeting in Paris on Thursday on the margins of a summit by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which Lamy will also attend. "He'll have to ask them whether or not they're ready to negotiate amongst themselves," one diplomat said -- adding that he expects a negative answer. "We are very far from having the basis for a serious discussion. On industrial goods, we're not there at all," he warned.