London 24 January 2004

“The future of Doha Development Agenda appears to be quite bleak.” This was the prevailing apprehension in a seminar, “From Cancun to Hong Kong: Progress Inside or Outside the WTO?” held in London on January 23, 2004. The seminar was organized by the London chapter of the India-based research and advocacy group CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics & Environment and the UK-based Consumers’ Association, UK. The focus of the seminar was to discuss the possibility of salvaging the Doha Agenda before the forthcoming Hong Kong Ministerial of the WTO in 2005. The participants in the seminar included experts from academia and civil society groups and other agencies both from India and the UK.

It was pointed out that many important players at the WTO including US, Canada, France, Germany, India and South Africa are going for elections before the Hong Kong Meet. This might dampen the progress on the Doha Agenda as the countries will reluctant to take bold decisions, observed Phil Evans of the Consumers’ Association. Nevertheless getting back onto the track is extremely important for the global economy. Referring to the debate on the “peace clause” on agriculture that maybe one way to move the talks forward, observed Pradeep S Mehta of CUTS.

The problem is likely to be compounded as the leadership for trade negotiations is going to be changed both in the US and the EU. It is also true that prior to the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, only the US and EU, and to some extent, Japan were the major players in multilateral trade negotiations. However, over the years, countries like Brazil, China and India have become more assertive. This might be good for the international economic order, but has definitely made the trade negotiations more complicated, observed Sheila Page of the Overseas Development Institute.

It was pointed out that one of the major players, the US is not particularly interested in the Doha Round. This might be due to the fact that the corporate lobby in the US has not shown much interest. Another major player, the EU, though may be interested, is not particularly good at negotiations. During the Uruguay Round, the big agri-business companies, the pharmaceutical companies and financial companies were deeply involved in the process. But no such group is active now in the US, observed Simon Evenett of the Oxford University and Brookings Institution.

Concerns were expressed at the growing engagement in regional and bilateral trade agreements which might not be good for the multilateral system. However, it was also viewed that regional arrangements can work as building blocks rather than stumbling blocks, but of course if their proliferation remains within a limit and does not create a “spaghetti bowl” like situation.

It was also viewed that the failure at Cancun should not be considered as the failure of the WTO as an institution. At Cancun, there was an overloaded agenda, especially when many of the Uruguay Round issues are yet to be settled. The best way out seems to be going slow or even dropping some of the Singapore Issues. However, it was pointed out that the EU may not be so keen on the Singapore Issues as it appears. Their insistence on these may be a tactical ploy to block any progress on agriculture, observed L Alan Winters of the University of Sussex. The future of the Doha Agenda thus depends to a large extent on the EU. The Doha Agenda can be salvaged before. However, the question remains, will it be?