From rules for small and medium enterprises to gender rights in global trade, developed nations are pushing for a stream of issues for discussion at next month’s meet of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and this may push the agriculture debate off track, India fears. The global body’s biennial ministerial conference is due next month in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is expected to set the discussion and norms on sectoral issues for at least two years. While India has decided to focus on seeking a permanent solution to the issue of public food stockpiling and caps on domestic subsidies to agriculture, the developed world including Canada, the US, and the EU are pushing for non-issues to sidetrack things, senior government officials say. Member-nations are allowed to put up proposals for discussions at Geneva-based headquarters of the WTO for discussion in the conference. "Just before the official ministerial negotiations start, this is the time which we call the silly season in Geneva," J S Deepak, India’s ambassador at the WTO, said, referring to the flurry of proposals being put up by member-nations. However, this is worrisome because many of these proposals run counter to India's interests while also reducing the space for discussion on long-pending agricultural issues, which most of the richer economies are not willing to engage on, he added. Small enterprises, big differences Deepak said the move towards discussing a set of global rules for facilitating trade by SMEs would harm India's interests since there was no decision to define an SME currently at the WTO. The proposal by a group of rich nations revolves around providing trade benefits to such enterprises based on size.
On the other hand, India and other developing nations have always argued that benefits should be based on special and differential treatment, currently allowed to such nations in global trade.“Under the proposal, our SMEs are so small as to not be able to take advantage of any possible benefits or are too large for the WTO’s consideration,” Deepak said. He added that with the overwhelming majority of India's manufacturing capacity resting in the SME sector, the proposal was alarming. Non-trade issues sneaking into debate The usually fractured opinions at the WTO have come in for a further beating this time as slow global trade growth and rising protectionist tendencies on the part of major players such as the United States have sharply divided the global community on key issues. Last month, the WTO had broken conventional practice to call a two-day mini-ministerial meet in Morocco for agreeing on agenda details for the December conference. However, deep differences remained among member-nations, Commerce Secretary Rita Teaotia had told an industry gathering last week. She later added that issues such as gender rights creeping into the WTO for discussion did not augur well for India. Precedents had shown that by introducing such 'non-trade' issues into the debate, dominant economies such as the United States and the European Union had been able to dictate the rules of global trade for decades to come, she added. At the multilateral forum, these nations have also increasingly pushed for a set of global rules for e-commerce. Australia, Switzerland, and Norway have made arguments on its behalf. “Allowing such a discussion would be akin to handing over policy space to decide on things such as our foreign direct investment norms and arbitration clauses,” said Abhijit Das, head of the Centre for WTO Studies, a government think tank for international trade. “The idea behind the guidelines is to be the basis of any later international agreement on e-commerce, which will undoubtedly favour richer nations owing to the nature of their developed market systems and penetration by online firms in the retail space,” a senior official who is part of the negotiating team said on condition of anonymity. Past agreements at the WTO on similar matters had pushed India back by decades, the official said, adding that the globally-bound Information Technology Agreement, under which India agreed to abolish tariffs on all forms of hardware imports, was killing the domestic electronics manufacturing industry.