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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