The Doha Development Agenda (DDA) negotiations are about to commemorate their 14th “birthday” without an end in sight. Another critical moment for the WTO is fast approaching, as the next Ministerial Conference (MC10) takes place in Nairobi on December 15-18, 2015.
Trade meetings are always complex events. The “battle in Seattle” in 1999 is well remembered as a WTO Ministerial that did not end well. Clashes with civil society organisations amid clouds of teargas were its trademark rather than progress in trade governance. Nothing as dramatic is expected to happen in the case of MC10. But, as the first WTO Ministerial to take place in a sub-Saharan African country, expectations about its results for the trade-related development agenda are high. The reality of the on-going negotiations, however, warrants caution – and the danger is that MC10 will disappoint for lack of deliverables.
Policymakers in industrialised nations have been both distracted (by macroeconomic crises) and more intrigued by preferential trade agreements (e.g., the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and plurilaterals (e.g., the Trade in Services Agreement) than by the multilateral approach. The large emerging economies continue to play a wait and see attitude, ready to fight for their agenda, but unwilling (or unable) to exert positive leadership in advancing the DDA.
The private sector, in turn, observes the WTO system with an increasing sense of frustration. This is due not only to the poor performance of the system in delivering results in a timely fashion, but also to the perception that the WTO “business model” is out-dated.
The limited deals reached in the context of the Bali Ministerial Conference in 2013—in particular, the agreement on Trade Facilitation—gave new hope to those who still believe in multilateral solutions. The protracted debates at the WTO in Geneva over the last two years and the disruptive negotiating tactics of some members, however, underscored that getting the consensus necessary to move the agenda forward is arguably more than “just” a Sisyphean task. For example, at the time of writing, only 51 out of the 161 WTO members had ratified the TFA. In other words, we are still a long way from getting the two-thirds of the membership required for the TFA to come into force.
The best hope for Nairobi is for WTO members to agree on a mini-package of deliverables on issues such as export competition in agriculture, development issues (e.g., Duty Free, Quota Free market access and preferential rules of origin), and transparency with respect to domestic regulation in services and rules.
This mini-package, however, would not answer one critical question: what should be the fate of the DDA? The gulf between those that would rather give up on the DDA and move on with a new negotiating agenda and those that believe that focus on finishing the DDA is the right priority seems to be widening as time goes by.
At the core of this debate is also the question of how to treat new trade powers, such as China, that still want to cling to the developing country status and more flexible trade disciplines.
One can only hope that the African private sector voice will be heard loud and clear in favour of progress in December. After all, these are the actors that will be most affected if the multilateral trade system becomes increasingly dysfunctional. In short, what we need is a “miracle” in Nairobi – a gift for the WTO as it reaches its 20th year of existence.
Professor Carlos A. Primo Braga is the Director of the Evian Group