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Doha negotiations analysis: losing sight of the big picture?

Posted by admin on September 5th, 2008

By Carlos Perez del Castillo

Cross-posted at GMF 

Significant progress occurred during the July negotiations in Geneva. However, many differences remained, both within the issues included in the Lamy package and in other areas that were never seriously tackled, such as cotton and geographical indications. As a result, I believe that it is an over- simplification to place sole responsibility on the Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM) for derailing the negotiations. If that issue had been resolved, I can think of a number of other points in both the agriculture and NAMA negotiations that would have subsequently threatened to prevent an agreement on the modalities.

At this juncture, I would like to voice my concern about the dramatic erosion of multilateralism. Close scrutiny of the texts produced by both the Ag and NAMA chairs reveals that there is very little multilateralism left in them. Efforts were constantly made to accommodate the interests, concerns and sensitivities of individual countries or groups of countries - both developed and developing.  Beyond the special and differential treatment for developing countries, particularly LDCs, small and vulnerable economies (SVEs) and recently acceded members (RAMs), the texts also introduce different treatments for a large number of other cases: the U.S. on domestic support; Switzerland and Norway on sensitive products; Venezuela, Mercosur and SADC countries in the NAMA text.

Equally worrisome are the multiple flexibilities that have been introduced in the market access pillar of the agriculture negotiations. The acceptance of sensitive products, special products, the Special Agricultural Safeguard (SSG), the SSM, and other provisions for exemptions will allow substantial deviations from the full application of the tariff reduction formula (up to two-thirds). This will seriously reduce and in many cases prevent the possibility of real market access.  Of even greater concern are the long term implications for agricultural market access embodied in such flexibilities. They are not temporal in nature and will likely become permanent features of the Agreement on Agriculture. As such, they are not in line with the long term interests of trade liberalization and fundamental agricultural reform.  Some people will defend this strategy as a pragmatic approach to help attain convergence among Members and finally a successful outcome. It may well be so, but, in my mind, the costs are too high.

Moreover, the approach chosen at the July Ministerial—to agree on modalities on Agriculture and NAMA first, and then to continue negotiations on other issues—seriously challenges the important concept of the “single undertaking.”  The benefit of a Round encompassing a wide range of members and sectors is the creation of trade-offs. The name of the game is to look for an overall balance in the wide context of the negotiations rather than in each sector or issue that is being negotiated.   While the concept of single undertaking remains “theoretically” alive in these negotiations, the reality is that Members have been looking for balances in each individual sector. Agriculture and NAMA are two prime examples.

Carlos Perez del Castillo is a member of the International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC) and an independent consultant.  He is the former permanent representative of Uruguay to the WTO and was chairman of the WTO General Council in 2003 and 2004.


A joint initiative of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the International Food & Agriculture Trade Policy Council (IPC), this blog collaboration aims to provide insight on concluding the Doha Round and pursuing trade liberalization in the future. 

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