How to run a Ministerial trade negotiation

It’s not some­thing that you want to try at home. The process of nego­ti­at­ing among 146 mem­ber coun­tries is, for rea­sons you can guess, messy. But in case you won­dered how any agree­ment is even­tu­al­ly reached at these fes­ti­vals here’s a 6‑step recipe. Warn­ing: it’s not guar­an­teed to work every time and it might not work this time. Right now we’re at about step 3, here in Can­cún. Here’s how it works # Mem­ber coun­tries begin by iden­ti­fy­ing their own nation­al objec­tives and cre­at­ing a nego­ti­at­ing demand that is designed to achieve their objec­tives. In devis­ing their nego­ti­at­ing strat­e­gy they have to take into account the degree to which their objec­tives may con­flict with the objec­tives of oth­er coun­tries and they have to think about the con­ces­sions they may have to make to get what they want.
# More and more, gov­ern­ments work in coali­tions in the WTO with like-mind­ed gov­ern­ments to cre­ate a joint pro­pos­al. Although this usu­al­ly demands some com­pro­mise on nation­al objec­tives, a coali­tion com­mands a greater share of atten­tion and sup­port than any but the largest coun­tries can com­mand on their own.
# One of the first process­es in a Min­is­te­r­i­al meet­ing is that a senior ambassador—a facilitator—is app­point­ed by the meet­ing Chair­man (nor­mal­l­ly the Min­is­ter for trade of the host coun­try) to con­sult sep­a­rate­ly with the Min­is­ters of the var­i­ous key coun­tries and coali­tions and to report to him on their will­ing­ness to come togeth­er on the main issues. He may then sug­gest ammend­ments to the draft Chair­man’s text which he believes will attract the broad­est pos­si­ble sup­port based on what was learned by his facil­i­ta­tors in the con­sul­ta­tions. This is why it’s impor­tant to have some ini­tial cer­tain­ty[⇒ relat­ed sto­ry] about the text which forms the basis for the con­sul­ta­tions and first part of the nego­ti­a­tions.
# The negotiations—the actu­al ‘horsetrading’—now begins in earnest and in detail on that text, even­tu­al­ly end­ing up with a series of small meet­ings now infa­mous­ly known as the ‘green room’ process in which the Chair­man tries to get the prin­ci­pals (Min­is­ters) of each of the key play­ers to make progress towards a sin­gle agreed text by labo­ri­ous­ly elim­i­nat­ing or avoid­ing or, at worst, restat­ing the remain­ing areas of dis­agree­ment.
# Once the Cha­ri­man’s has obtained agree­ment on each sub­ject of the nego­ti­a­tions (e.g. agri­cul­ture, ser­vices, mar­ket access for non-agri­cul­tur­al goods etc.) a sin­gle doc­u­ment con­tain­ing the text of each of those par­tial agree­ments and rep­re­sent­ing the draft deci­sion of the whole mem­ber­ship of WTO is pre­sent­ed to a final ‘ple­nary’ meet­ing of the del­e­ga­tions. It’s an ‘up or down’ deci­sion at that stage for each indi­vid­ual del­e­ga­tion: they are asked to accept the agree­ment as a whole, as part of a broad ‘con­sen­sus’.
# There is nor­mal­ly no ‘vote’: every effort is tak­en in the process of con­sul­ta­tions to come up with a ‘con­sen­sus’ text. It’s impor­tant to under­stand that this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a text with which every coun­try agrees in every detail. That almost cer­tain­ly nev­er hap­pens. Each mem­ber coun­try, from the small­est to the most pow­er­ful, has the choice of silent­ly join­ing a con­sen­sus and going along with the pro­posed agree­ment as a whole or, alter­nate­ly, stat­ing their objec­tion and refus­ing to allow the dec­la­ra­tion of an agree­ment ‘by con­sen­sus’. In the event that there is some dis­agree­ment that is suf­fi­cient­ly strong to prompt at least once coun­try to state an objec­tion at the last moment, the Chair­man will call for fur­ther con­sul­ta­tions to arrive at a com­pro­mise that does attract con­sen­sus sup­port. Nat­u­ral­ly, at the end of a long week of labo­ri­ous con­sul­ta­tion and nego­ti­a­tion, there is a lot of pres­sure on indi­vid­ual coun­tries to ‘swal­low their objec­tions’ on all but the most cru­cial prob­lems and join a con­sen­sus. But it’s not at all unknown for there to be some last-minute hold-outs (e.g. India at the Doha Min­is­te­r­i­al Meeting).

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