WTO Summit 2009: An End to Doha in sight?

Ren Yi Hooi, BASC Research Assistant

The seventh official ministerial meeting of the WTO’s 153 nations was recently held in Geneva from November 30 to December 2, but it passed with barely a whisper in comparison to the furor that greeted the Seattle WTO summit ten years ago. Even the protests were considerably more subdued, with only a few hundred participants rather than the thousands typical of previous summits. With the Doha Round well into its eighth year, it appeared as though none had high hopes for an imminent conclusion, and Director Pascal Lamy did not even plan to have it on the agenda for this low-key meeting. Instead, the first WTO summit since the Hong Kong meeting in 2005 aimed at “examining the functioning” of the global trade regulator during the three-day event and discussed the role of the WTO’s contribution to the global recovery from recession.

However, while the limping Doha Round was not brought up as an official topic of negotiation to avoid rising tensions, it was the subject that was weighing on everyone’s minds. The Doha Round has repeatedly failed to achieve its stated mission of opening rich-country markets to food exports from the developing world. This year’s summit concluded with an agreement to conduct a review early next year on whether a deal in the Doha Round is possible in 2010, and a large number of ministers called for the conclusion of the Doha Round in in both formal plenary meetings and informal working sessions. Many economists and trade policy experts also argued that the WTO should update the Doha agenda to tackle issues such as climate change and food security and reform its work style to serve developing countries better.

What makes the Doha Round different from other previous WTO negotiations is the fact that developing countries are strongly pushing for its move forward, and developed countries, especially the US, are blamed for holding it back. In pointed contrast to the lack of visible Doha progress, a group of 22 developing countries signed their own trade deal to cut tariffs and boost South-South trade. The European Union, Brazil and other economic powers have blamed the U.S. for gridlock in global-trade talks. The lack of US-led progress in the Doha Round is further reinforced by the fact that the Obama administration currently has other priorities and is not in a position to take on its protectionist constituencies in the United States. In response, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk argues that Barack Obama still believes the Doha Round can be concluded during his first term, but that what is now on the table does not deliver “meaningful market access in the part of the world that will be growing and driving GDP growth over the next few years.” His statement refers to countries such as India, China and Brazil, which the US has requested to further liberalize their industrial markets.

With the stall in agreement between current and burgeoning major world powers, it appears that this year’s low key Geneva Summit has achieved little in advancing global trade concerns. However, it is possible that the political momentum and energy gathered at this meeting, even without the opening of formal negotiations, could help to support an urgent push to conclude the Doha Round next year should eager countries be willing to compromise.

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