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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