The Hong Kong Conference ‘re-framed’

Director General Pascal Lamy’s overview of the state of the negotiations is a masterly summary followed by an evidently acceptable proposal for changing the expectations of, and preparations for, the Hong Kong ministerial conference. He uses the term ‘re-calibrate’, but it’s really a mater of re-framing the purpose of the meeting to make it part of a continuing process rather than a culmination.

Lamy has chosen this report to the Heads of all Members’ delegations in Geneva to summarize what he has learned in the last few days in smaller meetings of the progress that has been made toward agreement and to assess the progress that might be made up to the Hong Kong meeting.

The whole speech is worth reading. It’s free of rhetorical gestures, negotiators’ jargon and the complaints and self-justification that crept into the speeches of some of his predecessors (admittedly, he’s new in the job). Nor is it by any means a bleak assessment.

“If we all agree that we cannot reach “Full Modalities” by Hong Kong, then we must necessarily recalibrate our expectations for our Conference. We must carefully reflect on what we want to achieve at and after Hong Kong, in order not to reduce the level of ambition of the whole Round.

This probably means we are looking at having a range of numbers—the outer parameters—in the July 2004 Frameworks, and corresponding texts in the rule-making parts of the negotiations. This would still have to make up an overall package, and would have to be, by definition, balanced.”(WTO)

By the ‘outer parameters’ Lamy means elements in the decisions that are not the ‘headline’ numbers such as the key thresholds and tariff cuts in the Agriculture market access negotiations or the formula parameters in the NAMA tariff cuts and the question of whether they apply to bound or ‘applied’ rates.

On the whole, it’s what I’ve been expecting. Reports such as this in the Financial Times proclaiming that the ‘search for consensus has stalled‘ are a bit misleading (although not as silly as this ponderous collage from The Economist). The search goes on, the probing continues. That, of course, is purpose of the despairing tone in the official press releases.

A more subtle danger Lamy must have in mind—but has not discussed in his speech—is that this approach means that the Hong Kong agreements—like the agreement achieved at the end of July 2004 (the ‘Framework’ agreement that got the round moving again after the Cancuún conference collapsed)— may seem to be a squib. That’s because

  • everything depends on something else in a ‘balanced package’, and

  • nothing is agreed until everything is agreed

The closer we get to the final package, the more closely the participants in the negotiations scrutinize matters of equity and balance and proportional contribution by all their trading partners. As negotiators begin to assemble the final collection of gains acquired and concessions made, every one of them will be reluctant to settle on even those parts of the package that are most remote from the core to ensure that the final balance is minted with the greatest possible precision.

The effect of this common tactic in the last stages of a negotiation is to hide progress. Like an artist—this is a tortured simile since there’s more blood than art involved—who is unwilling to allow the world to see the work-in-progress as it approaches completion and critical appraisal, or like the players in a poker-game as the initial bluffs are called and the final stakes are revealed, negotiators play their hands ever closer to their chest as the time approaches to lay all cards on the table.

Less is seen as the final rounds of play approach. But that does not mean less is going on …

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