Supachai Panitchpakdi
Supachai Panitchpakdi

The failure of the recent WTO Ministerial to achieve its objective of agreeing on modalities for negotiations in agriculture and NAMA is a setback for the Doha Round. The latest in a series of failed attempts, the breakdown of the July talks has led to concerns about the demise of the entire Round. A recent Financial Times editorial even coined the unfortunate but catchy phrase, “dead as a Doha”.

Does this latest setback really mean the end of the Round?

I don’t think so. The Doha Round, and the broad set of issues it addresses, is simply too important to fall by the wayside. The Round remains the best vehicle for re-balancing the multilateral trading system and remedying long-standing distortions, such as agricultural subsidies by developed countries. Its completion is crucial to providing increased and secure market access for developing countries’ exports and to creating the conditions needed to promote development, poverty reduction and achievement of the MDGs. We should therefore hope that WTO members will return to the negotiating table soon. Indeed, the Ministerial has actually achieved significant convergence on many issues – no mean feat – which will help any future talks move more quickly.

Realistically, however, the latest setback inevitably means that there will be a delay in concluding the Round, offering much-needed time for reflection. In any case, even if there had been agreement on the modalities alone, this would not have meant completion of the Round.

What, then, should our priorities be?

While we must hope that current efforts to revive the talks succeed, if that proves not to be the case, it may still be possible to pursue some of the development deliverables on which some consensus was reached in July. These include, for example, duty-free, quota-free treatment for LDCs, addressing the development dimension of the cotton issue, Aid for Trade, the Enhanced Integrated Framework, and support for productive capacity-building of developing countries. Progress on these issues would also build the confidence needed to conclude the negotiations sooner rather than later. At the same time, no such “early harvest” could ever be a substitute for a full completion of the Doha Round with a meaningful development component.

Second, the setback could also have negative consequences for the multilateral trading system and the WTO as a whole. After all, the WTO was created as a forum for permanent negotiation. A prolonged freeze in the Doha talks would likely deflect attention to other negotiations at the regional or bilateral level. The WTO will, of course, remain the central pillar of the multilateral trading system, whether or not the Round is completed. It already oversees and administers a critical mass of trade rules. It also services the Dispute Settlement Mechanism, whose workload is only set to increase when the negotiations slow down. So there is no question about the overall relevance and importance of the WTO.

The July collapse also provides an opportunity for deliberations on whether the current modus operandi of the WTO is the best possible way of conducting negotiations beyond Doha. Some have argued that the problems with the Doha Round resulted essentially from the increasing difficulty of reaching consensus among an ever-growing multiplicity of issues and actors. In this context, the format of multi-issue negotiations leading up to a “Single Undertaking” might not be optimal for the future; certain institutional or operational adjustments might make the process more conducive to an outcome. These could include greater tolerance for a “variable geometry” and plurilateral approaches, and greater flexibility in the WTO’s decision-making procedures. Interestingly enough, these were among the suggestions made in the report of a Consultative Board, chaired by Peter Sutherland, which I commissioned during my time as Director-General of WTO. The proposals of the report – entitled “The Future of the WTO: Addressing institutional challenges in the new millennium” – may deserve renewed scrutiny in the light of recent events.

Finally, I think we must not lose sight of the fact that the Doha Round was explicitly labelled a “Development Round”. Should attention now move to other negotiating forums at the regional and bilateral level, the development dimension must still be at the top of the agenda. Regional and bilateral agreements should also include a full development component.

Photo © Horasis

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