WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo has urged members to use 2014 “to get the struggling negotiations [in the Doha Development Round] ‘back on track’.” This follows the limited success at the Bali Ministerial meeting in December 2013, when agreement was reached on a small number of elements from the Doha agenda (see Agritrade special report ‘ ACP aspirations and expectations and the outcome of the Ninth WTO Bali M...’, 11 December 2013). The Bali agreement included a 12-month deadline for the preparation of “a clearly defined work programme” on the remaining Doha agenda issues.
The Director-General has asked the negotiating group chairs to try to pinpoint those issues that could be moved forward and to report back to the WTO General Council. He has expressed the view that the Bali approach of focusing on the easier areas of the Round would probably not work for future agreements. It is “most likely”, he is reported as saying, that “any future multilateral engagement will require outcomes on agriculture.” It is also reported that a February meeting of the Committee on Agriculture “led to some progress in setting out how the Bali agreements on farm trade should be implemented”.
But members are said to remain unclear over how separate talks on the future of the Doha Round will proceed. ICTSD reports note that there appears still to be a lack of clarity over whether members would continue to seek agreements on small, more politically manageable packages or seek a more comprehensive deal.
The coming months may indicate whether or not there is the political will to re-energise the long-running Doha negotiations. There is a wide range of possible outcomes, from a continuation of small-scale deals, through separate agreement on multiple items on the Doha agenda, to the original ultimate goal of a “Single Undertaking”. However, agriculture seems likely to be part of any deal that goes beyond the minimal repeat of the non-binding agreements made at Bali.
The impact of any such deal on ACP states will depend critically on the details and how all Members implement these, both of which are of course unknown at present. But a straw in the wind may be provided in 2014 by what Members do to implement the modest Bali package. Precisely because most of these are of the “best endeavours” variety, the actions that governments take will offer a clear window into their bona fides in framing trade policies that respond to the real needs of poor developing countries.
This combination of implementation progress for Bali commitments and attempts to identify the more negotiable elements of the full Doha agenda mean that 2014 may provide a much clearer picture than has previously been possible of whether the WTO will retain its position as a forum for establishing trade rule. The alternatives to the WTO are a proliferation of bilateral and regional governmental agreements and the continued shift towards private sector rules as the primary architecture of the environment within which ACP states have to trade.