It’s over … for now

The fail­ure point was the four so-called ‘Sin­ga­pore issues’: specif­i­cal­ly the objec­tions of a broad coali­tion of Asian, Car­ribbean and African coun­tries to pro­pos­als for fur­ther work on Trade Facil­i­ta­tion (improv­ing the reg­u­la­tions affect­ing the move­ment of goods through ports, and reg­u­la­tions sur­round­ing finan­cial trans­ac­tions and cus­toms clear­ances). The Sin­ga­pore Issues were put on the WTO Agen­da at a Min­is­te­r­i­al Meet­ing in Sin­ga­pore in 1999. In addi­tion to trade facil­i­ta­tion, they includ­ed work towards a future agree­ment on trade aspects of com­pe­ti­tion pol­i­cy, improve­ments in gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment rules and work on trade-relat­ed aspects of invest­ment pol­i­cy. In rep­sonse to devel­op­ing coun­try objec­tions, the EU was pre­pared to ‘break out’ the work on invest­ment and com­pe­ti­tion poli­cies and to seek approval for nego­ti­a­tions only on trade facil­i­ta­tion and gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment. But Korea and Japan took the view that they were not will­ing to allow oth­er coun­tries to object piece-by-piece to progress on this group of issues. So the refusal of the devel­op­ing coun­tries to con­tin­ue with (at least) one of them was the end of nego­ti­a­tion on all of them. I have been told that, in fact, a broad coali­tion of devel­op­ing coun­tries had decid­ed overnight that they would not go ahead with any of the Sin­ga­pore Issues. The domi­noes all fell over at that point. With­out agree­ment to progress invest­ment, trade-facil­i­ta­tion etc. and with the tide of the agri­cul­ture nego­ti­a­tions turn­ing against them, the EU and Japan could not see many wins for them on the table with­out fur­ther progress on the Sin­ga­pore issues. [UPDATE: Mon­day morn­ing This is not entire­ly accu­rate. The deci­sion of the Chair­man was not forced by the reluc­tance of the EU, Japan, Switzer­land etc to con­tin­ue with nego­ti­a­tions only only two of the four Sin­ga­pore issues. The prob­lem was the refusal of the devel­op­ing coun­try groups to accept fur­ther nego­ti­a­tions on a subject—even as re-defined by the EU offer—that was defined at Doha as being part of the ‘sin­gle under­tak­ing’ of the round of nego­ti­a­tions.] At about 5pm on Sun­day, the Chair­man of the talks—Minister Der­bez of Mexico—pulled the plug. The Heads of Del­e­ga­tions decid­ed that the Gen­er­al Coun­cil of WTO would meet again by 15 Decem­ber, at the lat­est, in Gene­va to pick up the threads.
The fail­ure was not, after all, on the issue that gen­er­at­ed the most atten­tion: agri­cul­ture. I got the dis­tinct impres­sion at the G21 clos­ing press con­fer­ence that they were relieved about this. Their mes­sage: “We were not deal-break­ers. We offered pro­fes­sion­al and con­struc­tive inputs. We were mak­ing progress and look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing the nego­ti­a­tions with a view to reach­ing agree­ment on agricu­lutre”. Near­er the truth? Key mem­bers of the G21—such as India—were clear­ly part of the broad devel­op­ing coun­try oppo­si­tion to any nego­ti­a­tions on the Sin­ga­pore issues that emerged yes­ter­day and must have been aware that this meant a halt to the whole entre­prise. * The future of the cur­rent nego­ti­at­ing texts? * The future of the G21 group (which has cer­tain­ly suc­ceed­ed in a demon­stra­tion of the change in the ‘pow­er rela­tions’ in the WTO)? * The degree to which the WTO has been ‘dam­aged’ by two failed Min­is­te­r­i­al meet­ings in four years (Seat­tle, Can­cZn)? * The impe­tus that this stum­ble will give to ‘region­al agree­ments’? Good ques­tions. More lat­er. For now… a cou­ple of beers with my friends here and the start of a post­mortem.

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