In the Doha Round of negotiations at the Ninth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which is slated for end of 2013 in Bali, Indonesia, member countries are showing signs of wanting to achieve some credible results.
This was the message from WTO Director General Pascal Lamy at the General Council meeting last week. In his words, the recent meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee “showed that members are fully aware of their responsibility and the importance of what is at stake here. We had a pragmatic discussion about what is feasible for next year and I was pleased to note that the tone was one of caution, but also of realism and determination”.
As Lamy rightly pointed out, member countries have to remain optimistic to move the Doha Agenda forward but, at the same time, it would be important to be pragmatic. Countries across the globe have been hit by a slow economic growth or even worse recession. The European Central Bank has recently slashed the outlook for the euro-zone economy for 2013. Estimates are that Europe, especially in some of the large countries, the economy will not show much promise till the last quarter of next year.
The US economy is perched on a precipice. The fiscal cliff, if not sorted out, will mean a fall in consumption, according to a paper prepared by the White House, which will then impact the gross domestic product. Japan has been in recession for a while and the signs for the coming months have not be encouraging. The two large Latin American economies of Brazil and Argentina are also witnessing slow growth, and this may be one of the worst years for growth for Brazil in a decade. China has been showing signs of revival but it is too early to say if the trend will continue, though experts have opined that the worst is over for the Asian giant. India, on the other hand, is struggling with falling exports and insipid growth in the domestic market.
This is the background with which most countries will get back to the negotiating table at WTO. Therefore, if the Ninth Ministerial Conference has to deliver a positive result, there is a need for moving beyond rhetoric to some real understanding on what is achievable by the end of 2013. The ministerial conference of WTO, which is held once in two years, is the biggest decision-making body within WTO, and is attended by trade ministers from member countries needs good preparation and ground work.
The biggest challenge to WTO is the eroding brand value for the institution as a platform for promoting fair trade. Along with the core areas of discussion under the Doha Round, member countries should consider bringing in some elements that will strengthen the existing institutional mechanism of WTO, so that it is able to reflect the dynamic nature of trade across the globe.
One such area – trade facilitation – was highlighted by Lamy in his address. The last one year has seen some forward movement in this area, though several issues still remain unresolved. But a strong text on trade facilitation will help trade, as it can address the issue of non-tariff barriers faced by small and medium-sized exporters while tapping markets across the globe.
Another issue that members may want to tackle is on getting some elements of “development” in the Doha Round on the negotiating table. Given the current global economic situation, it would be difficult to achieve anything substantial on the development front but any reasonable progress on relevant issues would be welcome to keep the spirit of Doha alive.
As member countries and Pascal Lamy observed at the Geneva meeting, the ministerial at Bali cannot deliver much in terms of concluding the Doha Round but can become an important milestone in the “long journey” towards completing the negotiations that have been in limbo for far too long.
To a great extent, Bali can resurrect WTO and help member countries look at the organisation to resolve some of the emerging issues in global trade. The next six months would be critical in developing an agenda that can be resolved by the end of the ministerial.
The writer is Principal Adviser at APJ-SLG Law Offices