Gloomy negotiators are expressing frustration at the lack of progress in the World Trade Organization’s Doha round, even as they hold an intensive series of meetings intended to secure a breakthrough.
“We have a credibility problem… these are lean times,” said the ambassador of one emerging country, as he left a meeting of key delegations to take stock of the talks, which political leaders want wrapped up by next year.
“People are saying it’s not just about procedure, but about substance,” added a senior ambassador from a developing country.
The Doha round is now in its eighth year, but its promise of opening markets and helping developing countries to prosper through trade seems remote, with WTO members apparently unwilling to compromise enough to kick-start the stalled talks.
“My perception is that despite all the meetings there has been no progress whatsoever,” Brazil’s WTO Ambassador Roberto Azevedo told Reuters.
Azevedo even detected some backtracking. Rich countries such as the United States, Canada, Japan and other food importers wanted to step up protection for their farmers beyond levels agreed in abortive talks in July last year, he said.
At the same time they were calling on developing countries to open their markets more to industrial goods and services.
WTO members agreed only in September on an intensive work program until the end of the year. This involved negotiations on the full range of trade issues, attended once a month by senior officials from capitals, plus informal bilateral contacts and meetings in small groups.
But many countries – led by Argentina – expressed frustration at being left out of meetings of a dozen leading players hosted by the European Union which they say touched on topics of direct interest to them.
Many WTO members believe the blockage in the talks comes from Washington – where free trade is hard to sell politically and trade generally is a lower priority than issues such as health care, the war in Afghanistan and the financial crisis.
But acting U. S. Ambassador David Shark told the Oct. 22 meeting he was happy with the level of engagement he had encountered in a series of recent bilateral meetings, according to a participant in the meeting.
LONGEST-RUNNING TRADE ROUND
The lack of progress in what is already the longest-running trade round means that negotiators will soon have to decide whether the 2010 deadline remains realistic.
WTO director-general Pascal Lamy told the meeting that this would come sometime after the WTO’s much-delayed ministerial conference to be held in Geneva from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.
The conference is not intended to be a Doha negotiating session, but ministers are bound to review the talks.
Whether this infuses the round with political energy or brings it to a complete halt remains to be seen.
“People are frustrated and it’s because guys are dragging their feet,” said one participant.
Trade experts say that one element that is lacking in the talks – in contrast to previous rounds – is active lobbying from the sidelines by business.
A delegation from the U. S. National Foreign Trade Council was in Geneva this week to push for a Doha deal. But others seem to have concluded that the round will not make much difference to them.
“The international business community has discounted the Doha round,” said Lawrence Herman, one of Canada’s leading trade lawyers. “That is the reality. Business has moved on,” he told an energy conference at the WTO.
General Electric’s senior counsel for trade and intellectual property, Thaddeus Burns, called at the conference for a deal on environmental goods and services, which would spur green technology and help fight climate change, to be concluded quickly and separately from the Doha round.