Back and forward (and back) in Geneva

News ser­vices have all picked up a state­ment by the U.S. nego­tia­tor for agri­cul­ture in WTO in which he claims there’s been “some progress” in the Doha nego­ti­a­tions in the past six months but it looks like there’ll beno new rules ahead of the U.S. Con­gress extend­ing the farm bill sub­si­dies in 2012. 

Some progress”?! Judge for your­self. Below, I repro­duce three para­graphs of an un-offi­cial WTO Sec­re­tari­at report of the agri­cul­ture nego­ti­at­ing group meet­ing at the end of last month (Sep­tem­ber, 2010). Pure farce — albeit all too familiar.

The back­ground is that for more than a year offi­cials in a few devel­oped coun­tries have been try­ing to move the talks along by prepar­ing some “mock-ups” of the sched­ules of com­mit­ments that would be made by each WTO mem­ber coun­try if the pro­pos­als last dis­cussed in Decem­ber 2008 were actu­al­ly adopt­ed (ugh!). The idea is that these “tem­plates” would try to make sense of the gob­bledy­gook by trans­lat­ing the mul­ti­ple over­lay of rules and excep­tions and com­pen­sat­ing options into num­bers — e.g. tar­iff and bud­get cuts, quo­ta expan­sion etc. — on domes­tic sup­port, export sub­si­dies and mar­ket access. They would allow nego­tia­tors to see the cash val­ue of the deal… sort of… 

Here’s what hap­pened. Warn­ing: diplo­mat­ic euphemisms ahead. I’ll try to break them down for you: 

The work on tem­plates has high­light­ed some ambi­gu­i­ties, or lack of clar­i­ty, in the Decem­ber 2008 draft “modal­i­ties”, which con­tains for­mu­las for cut­ting tar­iffs and sub­si­dies, a wide range of flex­i­bil­i­ties for devi­at­ing from the for­mu­las, and rules and dis­ci­plines. Trans­la­tion: “Who knows what this stuff means!?”

This also sparked some dis­cus­sion in the meet­ing. Some coun­tries are call­ing for sep­a­rate or “par­al­lel” dis­cus­sions on the ambi­gu­i­ties and oth­er issues aris­ing from the 2008 draft, argu­ing that the modal­i­ties deter­mine the tem­plates and there­fore prob­lems in the modal­i­ties should be tack­led first. These coun­tries are led by Chi­na, India and Argenti­na, who have a pro­posed list of issues need­ing to be tack­led.Trans­la­tion: Most of the group wants to start over (as if ten years weren’t enough)…”

Some oth­ers argue that some of the ambi­gu­i­ties can be sort­ed out with­in the dis­cus­sions on tem­plates, because it is the work on the tem­plates that has revealed prob­lems with the modal­i­ties — the tem­plates serv­ing as a test­ing ground for the modal­i­ties. These include the EU and Uruguay. Pak­istan described the exer­cise as “iter­a­tive”, ie, going back and forth between the two areas of work.“Trans­la­tion: …the rest want to tin­ker some more… or maybe stand on one leg and hum.”

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