The Hong Kong Ministerial Conference held in December 2005 was a classic example of pressing water from a stone. An inordinate amount of negotiation went into a process that, despite four years of negotiation and a failed Ministerial meeting in Cancún Mexico in 2003, yielded only enough sap from the rock to allow negotiators to claim that a backsliding had not occurred and that they were at least able to ‘harvest on the fringes’ in claiming some minor matters of agreement. What was envisaged as the next step was that an intensive flurry of work would characterise the first quarter of 2006 with definite results being delivered by 30 April 2006.
The two front running topics in the negotiations are agriculture and industrial products (NAMA). In both these categories the Hong Kong text envisaged that there would be an agreement on modalities i.e. what exactly would be done as represented by hard numbers and formulas as the next tranche of trade liberalisation. These modalities would then be converted into individual numerical commitments for each of the 150 WTO Member countries by the end of July 2006.
The 30 April deadline has just passed, without either of the agricultural or industrial negotiations having progressed, let alone reaching their conclusion by the deadline. The disappointing element is that we are becoming used to expecting disappointment at the WTO, that this event has hardly been newsworthy.
This is clearly indicative of a lack of political will or real urgency on the domestic calendars of the WTO Members. We saw for instance that within a mere 3 weeks of the April deadline, US President Bush reassigned his chief trade negotiator, the USTR (the local equivalent of a trade minister) to a new career in the US budget office. While we are now seeing politicians from New Deli to Canberra to Nairobi trying to bolster and smooth over the continued failure to make progress, there are definite cracks in the façade that come through as a reality check.
By way of example, WTO Director General, Pascal Lamy told the trade negotiators in a cordial but guised rebuke on May Day. He indicated he had reservations about the commitment of the WTO Members, with a result perhaps still being possible ‘only if a sense of urgency; which I feel is not always shared by you all; starts appearing in each and every delegation.’ Strong words indeed from an official. The Chair of the agriculture negotiations, New Zealand’s Crawford Falconer, was even less diplomatic in venting his frustrations with trying to advance the agriculture talks. He seemed to feel that negotiators were not performing to standard and commented recently that ‘a resolution of outstanding issues will not come about through spontaneous combustion or via papers from heaven (whether or not divinely inspired).’
As a firm intimately involved in advising public sector clients in this phase of the negotiations we would fully concur. The firm will be making its contribution in the coming weeks to supporting the continent’s efforts in the negotiations as part of a team of trade advisors who are engaged to provide technical legal advice and drafting assistance to the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) negotiators in Geneva.