Tuesday, January 6, 2015


At a recent trade forum in Washington, a veteran agricultural trade hand shared a panel with some US trade officials.  He said three times in an hour – “DOHA IS DEAD!”

On the same panel a ranking US agriculture official announced – in “meek” terms – new-found US support for a renewed Doha Development Agenda which since 2008 has been in “deep freeze.” The “new” attitude emerges as the United States takes credit for breaking the deadlock in Geneva with India over a much-touted Trade Facilitation Agreement and getting China to go along with restarted Information Trade Agreement talks in Geneva.  The latter talks have gotten stuck again, but most in Geneva say it is only temporary.

The USTR official told WTD that the United States and other Doha “skeptics” are taking another look at the multilateral trade negotiations – which officially got underway in late 2001, stalled in 2003 and again in 2008 and now can only be described as being on life support.

But the official indicated that the re-start must follow US strictures.  Members will have to take a re-look at the new realities of trade on the ground – especially in agriculture.  Washington will not agree to a resumption from where negotiations left off in 2008.  That already is a well espoused public US position made here and in Geneva.

The official, when talking about agriculture, was not specific about whether the talks should start from scratch, whether some controversial issues should be spun off for expedience or whether negotiators should simply set a date for conclusion and get done what can be done in that time-frame.

Developing countries – that see far more immediate and long-lasting benefits from a full multilateral round – are equally insistent on getting a re-start.  Agriculture is essentially squared away in the 2008 Doha modalities, they say.  And getting agreement on what was intended to be the essence of the Doha agreement should not be difficult – if the political momentum exists.

WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo is sympathetic and has called for a roadmap by next July showing how members can complete the round.  And some are extrapolating that completion of the DDA could happen by the end of next year.  New European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström said that during a visit to Geneva last week.

Already getting down to work are several long-idled Doha negotiating committees under direction from the Director General.

Mr. Azevêdo appears to be “betting the bank” – and what’s left of the WTO’s reputation along with his own reputation – on success.

But to get back to the “Doha is Dead” proponent.  It is simple reality, he said, adding that “the world has to get over it.”  Bilateral, regional and plurilateral agreements – even those based in Geneva – are working well.  He suggested that abandoning those approaches to global trade liberalization would be counterproductive.

Over the past half decade during the Doha “freeze,”  I have noticed during similar conferences, seminars and simple speeches in a variety of forums an underlying snigger that followed any mention of Doha.  In recent months that rumbling of skepticism has become more pronounced – turning into chuckles.  At the most recent agriculture conference, the grumbling transformed itself into audible laughter.

I don’t know how the Doha renewal effort will work out.  But when the grumbling and giggles turn into full-throated belly laughs, I’ll give in.  

Jim Berger

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