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December ministerial may decide fate of Doha round talks

Nayanima Basu  |  New Delhi 

WTO summit will see whether decade-long negotiations would go forward or be brought to an end.

Next week’s meeting of trade ministers from all the 157 member-countries of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is an important one. This year is the tenth anniversary of the Doha Round of global trade talks. And, G-20 leaders have (during the November 3-4 Cannes summit) already hinted the Round should be quashed.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether the December 15-17 ministerial at the WTO headquarters in Geneva would finally sound the end for the Round or whether a map ahead is charted.

Trade experts believe killing the round would be detrimental for countries like India, China and Brazil, which still have some gains to achieve. Quashing the round would also deal a big blow to the least developed countries, which would benefit more from a multilateral trade agreement that would help them export more by gaining access into richer markets.

According to WTO director-general Pascal Lamy, the coming ministerial would act as a platform where every member would pledge achieving “real progress” by 2012. Lamy, during his report on the Doha Round to the WTO’s General Council, said the meet should have delegates ready to show political will in breaking the impasse in talks.

However, the latest G20 summit in France saw leaders clarifying that the current round of global trade talks that started in Doha in 2001 “cannot continue using current methods”, as these had “failed to bring the Doha cycle to a conclusion over the last 10 years”. They are, they said, ready to give it a new approach to strengthen the multilateral trading system and make progress in the areas “of interest to the poorest countries”, according to a communiqué on trade issued at the end of the summit.

The document adds that the G20 would be launching work on new regulations regarding the questions raised by the crisis. Also, these would go beyond what was mandated in the Doha Development Agenda.

Abhijit Das of the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT) says only WTO can address and resolve some of the core concerns of emerging economies, including reduction in developed country farm subsidies. “It would be in the interest of the emerging economies to preserve the primacy of WTO,” he said.

Das, who heads the Centre for WTO Studies in the IIFT, says the G20 leaders’ statement should be seen as a strong push to negotiators for being more constructive in concluding the Doha Round.

Officials in the ministry of commerce and industry say the ministerial will see countries trying to work out some sort of a beneficial package for poor countries. In April, the WTO had circulated a set of negotiating texts on all the areas, which was denounced by the developing countries. Hence, the negotiations had been taking place on the basis of the texts circulated in 2008, to US resistance.

The Doha talks, says a senior official from the ministry who is involved in the negotiations, can come to a meaningful conclusion only when countries start scaling back their ambitions and adhere to only what was agreed to in 2001, that had development as the core objective for poorer countries. “For God’s sake, it was a development round — and not where countries would indulge their mercantilist ambitions,” he told Business Standard .

Now, as the US is heading for yet another presidential election, in 2012, Doha will, doubtless, remain on the back-burner for some time.

“Any failure of the multilateral process will not only impact developing countries, but hurt the credibility of an institution, the WTO,” says T S Vishwanath, principal adviser, trade policy, at APJ-SLG Law Offices. Lamy, who had been spearheading the talks as the DG of WTO for the last six years, had been asserting for the last couple of years that 80 per cent of the job is done.

The negotiating process, according to Biswajit Dhar, director-general of RIS, the New Delhi-based think tank, says the Doha talks have became hostage to dominant interest groups in the major economies.

As for the Indian industry, it has taken a wait-and-watch approach. Ficci secretary-general Rajiv Kumar says “The next task will be to draw the work plan for 2012 towards the conclusion of the Doha Round, with a balanced outcome in accordance with its development-led mandate.”

The Round has been the longest of all multilateral trade negotiations. Prior to this, the Uruguay Round went on for eight years under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

First Published: Mon, December 12 2011. 01:02 IST