Testing le d’fi fran’ais on Agriculture

Accord­ing to press reports Mr Chirac told the EU Sum­mit meet­ing in Hamp­ton Court, Eng­land, that France would ‘veto’ a Doha round agree­ment on Agri­cul­ture that required cuts in sup­port or pro­tec­tion greater than those con­tained in the EU’s 2003 deci­sion on future Com­mon Agri­cul­ture Pol­i­cy (CAP) reforms. Could he do that? Well … the WTO’s deci­sion-mak­ing pro­ce­dures sug­gest it might be a close-run thing

Chirac’s spokesman qual­i­fied the threat as a ‘right reserved’ rather than an an ulti­ma­tum:

Mr Chirac’s spokesman said France ‘reserved the right not to approve’ any out­come of the Doha talks that under­mined the 2003 EU deal on farm reform, which set out pol­i­cy until 2013. 

Mr Man­del­son out­lined his lat­est pro­pos­als in a ‘dif­fi­cult and frank’ dis­cus­sion with Dominique de Villepin, French prime min­is­ter, on Wednes­day, EU offi­cials said. ‘Voic­es were not raised,’ one added.”(Finan­cial Times)

But France can­not veto, on its own, EC pol­i­cy deci­sions on exter­nal trade or in WTO where the Com­mis­sion speaks and nego­ti­ates on behalf of all mem­bers of the Treaty of Rome (the EC’s fun­da­men­tal con­sti­tu­tion­al agree­ment). With­in the EC, a weight­ed major­i­ty vot­ing pro­ce­dure applies to exter­nal trade deci­sions and France alone does not have suf­fi­cient weight to reverse major­i­ty decisions.

In the WTO, both France the EC are orig­i­nal mem­bers. It’s a unique dou­ble dip­ping arrange­ment that aris­es out of the EC’s sta­tus as the only large cus­toms union in WTO. The rules on mem­ber­ship say that any gov­ern­ment (or in the EC’s case, inter­gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion) that con­trols a cus­toms-ter­ri­to­ry may be a mem­ber of WTO. The EC itself qual­i­fies under this rule, as does France.

So when we get to the final scenes of the Doha round, France, as a full mem­ber of WTO, may refuse to join a con­sen­sus on the Agree­ment on Agri­cul­ture, even if the oth­er mem­bers of the EC go along with the con­sen­sus. Nor­mal­ly, this would hold up agree­ment and cause at least delay and fur­ther wran­gling to achieve consensus.

But there’s anoth­er way to make deci­sions. The Agree­ment Estab­lish­ing WTO (some­times called the Marakesh Agree­ment) pro­vides the WTO rules on deci­sion-mak­ing. Arti­cle 10.1 of the Agree­ment notes that con­sen­sus is the usu­al way of mak­ing deci­sions but that a Min­is­te­r­i­al Con­fer­ence may put mat­ters to a (sim­ple) major­i­ty vote. In such a vote, the EC will have as many votes as it has mem­ber states: that is, 25 includ­ing France.

Now, sup­pose instead of allow­ing France to hold a deci­sion on Agri­cul­ture to ran­som by refus­ing to join a con­sen­sus, the Mem­bers of WTO decid­ed to vote. The EC must vote en bloc (accord­ing to the require­ments of the Treaty of Rome). As I under­stand Arti­cle 10, it con­tains the same expec­ta­tion: France should not exer­cise its own vote in WTO but must reach an agree­ment with the oth­er mem­bers of the EC how Europe’s 25 votes should be cast. In that inter­nal nego­ti­a­tion, France is faced with the EC’s qual­i­fied major­i­ty require­ment: it can­not uni­lat­er­al­ly deter­mine EC exter­nal trade policy.

But if I am wrong and France can exer­cise a vote in WTO inde­pen­dent­ly of the oth­er 24 mem­bers of the EC (thus deliv­er­ing yet anoth­er con­sti­tu­tion­al cri­sis to Europe), it might just squeeze through. France will have to find 74 oth­er WTO mem­bers to vote ‘no’ with it. 

Here’s the worst case sce­nario.

Let’s sup­pose that the G‑33 group of devel­op­ing coun­tries that want to open up mar­ket access as lit­tle as pos­si­ble are not entire­ly hap­py with the final agree­ment and see no harm to their inter­ests in allow­ing nego­ti­a­tions to col­lapse, even if this means that Europe and the USA may con­tin­ue to use export sub­si­dies. They com­prise 42 WTO members.

Let’s sup­pose, too, that the high­est pro­tec­tion devel­oped coun­tries in the G‑10 (Nine mem­bers: Ice­land, Israel, Japan, Rep of Korea, Liecht­en­stein, Mau­ri­tius, Nor­way, Switzer­land, Chi­nese Taipei) take a sim­i­lar view and that the six ‘recent­ly acced­ed mem­bers’ (6 RAMS: Alba­nia, Croa­t­ia, Geor­gia, Jor­dan, Moldo­va and Oman) decide that they have ‘giv­en enough’ in the terms of their acces­sion to WTO and don’t stand to gain much from addi­tion­al access oblig­a­tions under a new Agri­cul­ture agreement.

That adds up to 57 WTO mem­bers who might join France if a vote were called. France would need to find sup­port from sev­en­teen more coun­tries from e.g. the African, Caribbean and Pacif­ic group to which it chan­nels aid, in order to win a major­i­ty. That’s would be a big chal­lenge … but not impos­si­ble.

Why would 74 coun­tries that would oth­er­wise join a con­sen­sus for an Agri­cul­ture agree­ment vote against it if giv­en the chance? 

That’s a ques­tion for anoth­er time. But think of it this way: a vote would not only call Chirac’s bluff but also that of every oth­er gov­ern­ment that would pre­fer to go along with a major­i­ty con­sen­sus rather than make an overt choice. In the cir­cum­stances of a vote, some gov­ern­ments will vote ‘no’ as a means of avoid­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for change.

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