High drama and low politics

There is a breath­less qual­i­ty to media reports on the maneu­vers of gov­ern­ments try­ing to meet the WTO’s self-imposed dead­line of 31 Octo­ber for signs of agree­ment on Agri­cul­ture at the Hong Kong Min­is­te­r­i­al Con­fer­ence in Decem­ber. The hot­house atmos­phere helps gov­ern­ments press beyond estab­lished posi­tions. But it would be naive to imag­ine that the next EC offer in the agri­cul­ture nego­ti­a­tions, expect­ed on 27 Octo­ber, would (or even could) be the out­line of a deal with the USA, the G-20 (India, Brazil etc) and the rest of the world

Ben Muse has been chron­i­cling the to-ing and fro-ing with an espe­cial­ly well-linked set of posts. Most of the com­ments he quotes show one or anoth­er spokesper­son claim­ing the next few days—and the antic­i­pat­ed EC offer on agri­cul­ture on 27 Octo­ber in particular—are a “make-or-break“ oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Doha Round.

This is an excit­ing point in the nego­ti­a­tions because the exchanges are flow­ing more quick­ly and the high-tem­per­a­ture pub­lic threats and counter-threats exchanged between, for exam­ple, the French gov­ern­ment and the Com­mis­sion, have pro­duced dra­mat­ic (but only par­tial) evi­dence of the poten­tial impact of long-need­ed reforms.

But for all the dra­ma this is not the scene where the “fat lady” sings. We are still some­where in the mid­dle of the Sec­ond Act, and there are a few more ‘crises‘ to go before all the ele­ments (some men­tioned here) are bal­anced ready for the final deal.

The the­atre last few days in Paris and Brussels—in which the Com­mis­sion found it nec­es­sary to make a pub­lic show of con­fi­dence in Trade Com­mis­sion­er Mandelson—hints at the blood­i­ness of low pol­i­tics. The oth­er­wise diplo­mat­ic exer­cise of trade nego­ti­a­tions becomes a much more vicious fight when the pro­pos­als seri­ous­ly threat­en the access of pro­duc­ers (agri­cul­ture, in this case, but it could be any oth­ers) to the pub­lic tit. Politi­cians who agree to change a spe­cif­ic trade mea­sure that directs con­sumer or tax­pay­er funds into someone’s bank account must expect either to ‘com­pen­sate’ the change (in the inglo­ri­ous tra­di­tion of Euro­pean farm pol­i­cy) or risk pay­ing the price at the bal­lot box.

Governments—and indi­vid­ual politicians—know from expe­ri­ence that the best chance they have of sur­viv­ing such “lead­er­ship“ episodes is to sub­merge them in a much larg­er pack­age of mea­sures in which they are bound to have some wins as well as some ‘loss­es’. That pack­age is not yet ready in the Doha nego­ti­a­tions and, until it is ready—until it includes some­thing on devel­op­ment issues, on sen­si­tive prod­ucts, on food aid, on pre­cise terms for the elim­i­na­tion of all forms of export sup­ports, and (prob­a­bly) some­thing on the wretched sub­ject of geo­graph­i­cal indi­ca­tions—we won’t see any defin­i­tive deal on agri­cul­tur­al mar­ket access.

Next April—June is my guess for the final scene. Too long to hold your breath; so exhale, breathe calm­ly, and keep the pow­der dry (the real shoot­ing is still to come).

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