New Agriculture Chair for WTO

Its been expected for some time, and now its happened – the Chair of the WTO Agriculture negotiations Crawford Falconer, affectionately known as ‘The Falcon’, is to relinquish his position and fly home. These without having seen the Doha Round agricultural modalities come to fruition.

The departure of the Falcon does not surprise many at this stage because he was originally scheduled to leave Geneva in December 2008. However with the brief moment of insanity that was going to see the convention of WTO Ministerial meeting last December, the Falcon stayed on in a last effort to peg down an agriculture modalities text. It would have indeed been untimely to have Falconer gone in the event that the December ministerial actually took off, which it did not. Falconer did however leave a mildly revised version of his July 2008 modalities text as a parting gift to the WTO Membership.

The Falcon’s legacy is however less likely to be in this text than in the tireless work he committed to the Doha agriculture negotiations as Chair of the negotiations since 2005. He was able to combine acute technical insight with a highly entertaining and in amid delivery style. It is said that he drafted much of his work himself, where many others rely heavily on the WTO Secretariat, and rightly so. One of the many ‘Falconisms’ that comes to mind is his admonition of trade negotiators’ lack of ability to progress in the words: “You don’t close divergences by taking time off to have a cup of tea.” Need we say more?

The Falcon was not only a man with a flair for agriculture. He has also chaired the contentious Boeing-Airbus dispute settlement panel, which is arguably the most complex case ever brought before a panel.

Falconer is being promoted and he will return to New Zealand to take up the post of Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). This would be a deputy minister in local terms. In New Zealand doing the agriculture negotiations puts one on the fast track. Recall that the present New Zealand Trade Minister, Tim Groser, himself chaired the agriculture negotiations at the WTO directly prior to Crawford Falconer. Groser was himself a man with a personality not shy of witty comment in his texts. Groser was also not the ‘father’ of the Doha Agriculture negotiations. That job fell to the then ambassador of Hong Kong Stuart Harbinson, whose 2003 ‘Harbinson Draft’ still resonates in some of the lost history that periodically reappears as ‘new’ in the negotiations. What the succession shows us is that the agriculture negotiations are not going to stand or fall on any one personality. The process is bigger than a personality and no doubt the Falcon would agree that this is indeed how things should be.

Falconer has been replaced in Geneva by David Walker, himself an experienced trade negotiator. Walker was the lead negotiator in the New Zealand – China FTA negotiations and before coming to Geneva was leading New Zealand in their Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Groser has said that he is comfortable to allow Walker to take up where the Falcon left off as the Chair. However this is ultimately a decision that must be made by the WTO membership. They may want to have somebody who has been closer to the nuts and bolts of the process, given that it has been delicate and the texts so far arcane. On the hand a fresh approach may be just what is called for to break the malaise that has set into the modalities phase of the negotiations.

Word around the canteens is that the Chair could indeed yet be another chap ‘from a small island nation at the bottom of the world’, or perhaps to the current rules negotiations chair may be in the running. Rumors will abound, but it’s a critical post in the WTO so let us hope for the right candidate in what is certainly an unenviable post. Any volunteers?