The World Trade Organisation (WTO) wrapped up a ministerial meeting on Saturday deadlocked on the Doha Round of negotiations for a global free trade pact and some ministers calling for a new path.
Conference chairperson and Nigerian Trade Minister Olusegun Aganga summarised the ministers’ regret at the impasse in a concluding statement.
The WTO’s 153 member states agreed to “more fully explore different negotiating approaches” and “intensify their efforts to look into ways” to overcome the stalemate, said Aganga.
Launched a decade ago in the Qatari capital, the Doha Round of negotiations has faltered as developing and developed countries failed to bridge entrenched positions on cutting farm subsidies and lowering industrial tariffs.
With the talks at a standstill, ministers had arrived in Geneva knowing full well that their three-day meeting was not a negotiating session.
The main bright spot of the conference was Russia’s accession to the world trade body this week after a record 18 years of entry negotiations.
Russia applied in 1993 but talks dragged on and its brief war with Georgia in 2008 further delayed its application as Tbilisi was able to veto Moscow’s application by virtue of its WTO membership.
Besides Russia, the WTO on Saturday welcomed two other countries — Samoa and Montenegro — to its fold, although parliaments in all three nations must still ratify the move.
Beyond the expanded membership, there was little progress on the Doha Round, with some ministers blatantly saying that negotiations would not bear fruit if they continued in the same vein — a point also made by the G20 summit in November.
“With this ministerial conference, it is clear that we are turning a page in our decade-long pursuit of the Doha Development Agenda,” said Ron Kirk, US trade representative.
Gaps “exist not only in non-agricultural market access but indeed across the broad scope of the Doha agenda,” he added.
“The frank recognition that our current path is simply not leading in a fruitful direction is the only logical place to start if we are to find a better and more productive path for conducting negotiations within this institution,” Kirk told the ministerial meeting.
EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht admitted at a press conference that WTO member states needed to “recognise that our credibility has been seriously damaged by our failure to get Doha off the ground”.
“We must make sure that 2012 does not become a ‘lost year’. I am ready to take the lead and I look to all my partners to join me,” he said.
Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said Beijing was open to “exploring new pathways and issues” but that members must not lose sight of the fact that the main aim of Doha was to lift countries out of poverty through trade.
“This is like mountain climbing, the summit is the Doha Round. But we’ve hit a roadblock on the way to the top, so we can either do a detour or we can find a new path.”
WTO director-general Pascal Lamy urged the membership to revive negotiations, saying “the lack of convergence that exists today would not solve itself with time.”
“That’s why I call on ministers to start working immediately now in a creative, constructive manner,” he told the meeting.
Any future negotiations were likely to be “more pragmatic and in a way more subtle”, Lamy told reporters later.
“People have been flexible, open more than in the past. Let’s see whether this goodwill reinforces or evaporates during the Christmas break,” he said. — AFP