Geneva 25 May 2004

An unprecedented audience heard Pascal Lamy reiterating his well-known views on how to take the Doha Agenda forward, though most did not feel convinced that the EU is really serious.

Speaking at the opening session of the WTO Public Symposium being organised here on 25-27 May, Lamy, the EU’s Trade Commissioner, fired a salvo. “We failed to bring in social issues at Doha and will launch a campaign soon after the end of the year when the quotas under the agreement on textiles and clothing come to an end”.

The WTO Director General Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, in welcoming the participants noted that over 1200 people have registered for the event and this is indicative of the increasing transparency that the WTO would like to pursue. “This is an opportunity to have reality checks by bringing together the various stakeholders and actors of the multilateral trading system, stimulating an open debate”.

In the context of the Doha round, Panitchpakdi hoped that the July target of arriving at a framework will only be the beginning. Commenting on the structure of the symposium, he noted that of the 29 events, 25 are being organised by NGOs and there are issues being discussed many members may not like, but it is important to have discussions and debates on the contentious issues.

One such contentious issue is the matter of labour standards, which was raised by the Global Unions at a workshop organised in the afternoon. In discussing the ILO’s report of the Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalisation, participants noted that it has called for better coherence among international institutions and that labour standards need to be respected in all international accords.

“The Unions will never give up on getting labour standards into the WTO framework. Perhaps that is another issue which the EU would support, as Lamy said quite plainly, and would become another non-tariff barrier whether or not the Doha Round is successfully concluded”, noted CUTS Secretary General, Pradeep S Mehta.

It was not Lamy alone who has inspired this debate but several campaigns which the international labour movement has been running ever since the Singapore ministerial meeting of the WTO in December, 1996.

The workshop also expressed serious concern on the lack of movement in the area of special and differential treatment—an issue which was agreed at Doha to put weight on the ‘development’ prefix to the Round. However, Lamy did not address this issue at all.

On the contrary, Lamy, in response to a floor intervention, gave only a vague answer on the four Singapore issues (investment, competition, trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement), which will remain on board and expectedly move at differing speeds. “We now have an understanding on trade facilitation with nearly all members, while one is still looking at transparency in government procurement. Investment and competition will continue to be discussed at the WTO and we will proceed with them as agreements outside the single undertaking”.

The Singapore issues were also brought up in a concern raised in the area of bilateral and regional agreements, where the capacity of the developing countries to negotiate is almost non existent, and where they lack the backing of the bargaining power that they can have in the multilateral trading system.

On agriculture, Lamy said that they are moving forward on export and production subsidies. “The picture is rather less clear on market access, where differences between us—or apparent differences—have slowed progress. We still believe that a “blended approach” can address concerns of the agricultural exporters, our own sensitivities and those of developing countries like India”.

As the day moved on, agriculture turned out as the hottest issue, with a lot of concerns raised by developing-country and NGO observers. At a subsequent workshop on “Trade in Agriculture”—and more to come—Ignasi Carreras of OXFAM Spain made a critical statement that northern agricultural policies are harming southern farmers, citing an example that while the EU is one of the least competitive producers, it is one of the biggest exporters of sugar. Another point was made by Jack Wilkinson of International Federation of Agricultural Producers, who noted rather stoically that sometimes subsidies have historically been put in place for valid reasons, because the markets have not worked. If the subsidies are removed and if practical ways are not found to address these market failures, how will the poor benefit?

Many speakers and discussants reiterated Dr. Panitchpakdi’s opening point for the urgent need to take advantage of the small window of opportunity that has opened up between now and July. Repeated references arose as to the serious need for substantial political will to move forward in the area of agricultural negotiations, particularly from developing countries.

A workshop by ICTSD on Africa was quite despondent, raising a fundamental issue: “The continued dismal performance of Africa in the global economy has led many to question the utility of its participation in the multilateral trading system”. One message coming out of the discussion – For effective participation into the system, capacity building is required, however, most of the efforts in this line made in Africa has been negated by corruption and other governance problems. This was, by coincidence, in choir with a remark made in the “Trade in Agriculture” by Joachim Von Braun, International Food Policy Research Institute: It is incorrect to blame everything on globalisation. Looking at environmental issues, free trade is not bad for the environment, it is bad governance and bad rule of law that are bad for environment.

The opening day of the Symposium ended but a lot of questions remained unanswered, not to count those exchanged but not yet having a chance to be voiced in common, stimulating an atmosphere of great excitement and anticipation. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that in the next days to go, NGOs will manage to make their points, as expected by the WTO Director General ay the beginning. “Whatever [NGOs’] point of view, it has to be acknowledged that [NGOs] succeeded in making [NGOs’] voices heard and in having [NGOs] arguments- at least some – taken into account by the WTO and its Members. It is equally true that, because of this growing influence, [NGOs] too can be partially held accountable for the success AND failures this organisation has seen.”