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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