For every person involved in the Doha Round negotiations, there is probably a different point at which hope in the multilateral talks began to fade. For some, it may have been as far back as the Cancún Ministerial Conference in 2003, when the first alarm bells rang just two years after the launch of Doha. For others, it may have been during one of the following conferences that left no results after missing deadlines, first in 2005 and again in 2011. Or perhaps it was last year after India temporarily blocked the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), which was announced as a long-awaited way to gain momentum in the negotiations.
The Doha Development Agenda (better known as the Doha Round) was started in Qatar’s capital in 2001 to lower customs tariffs, limit subsidies for agricultural products, liberalize cross-border services trade, and protect intellectual property rights. Developed country participants primarily wanted more global integration, while developing country participants wanted to emphasize the fact that they could not get what they wanted in previous negotiations. Although developing countries had special treatments, such as longer periods for lowering tariffs during the earlier Uruguay Rounds, they argued that they did not have sufficient time to implement radical changes in areas such as intellectual property.
While the Doha Round initially focused on the needs of least developed countries (LDCs), it quickly shifted to a debate on agricultural subsidies in developed countries. “Without a satisfactory conclusion on agriculture, there will be no conclusion to the Doha Round,” said Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile at an informal meeting of trade ministers in 2002, highlighting the fact that agricultural subsidies in developed countries are much larger than agricultural exports of developing countries. And unfortunately, since then agriculture has been the major obstacle for the Doha Round.
The slowdown in multilateral negotiations has had unavoidable consequences, including an influx of regional trade agreements, which now total more than 400, mainly due to the disappointing Doha negotiations. This has spurred debate around whether regional agreements are substitutes or complements for the Doha Round. The optimistic view is that, as more countries liberalize their trade policies at regional levels, it will become easier to have a multilateral agreement. On the other hand, regional trade agreements have the potential to create trade blocs and close the door to a wider agreement.
There is a consensus that the increasing pace of negotiations between the EU and US around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) Agreement owes much to blockages in the Doha Round. This partnership represents one third of global trade and half of global GDP. Since custom tariffs are already quite low between the EU and US, some argue that this agreement is more about establishing their regulations and standards to then compel other countries to adopt their rules for entry into this huge market.
The increasing number of regional agreements has indicated soaring doubts on multilateral negotiations and the World Trade Organization (WTO) itself, which has led to changes in state of play by WTO. The organization’s sixth Director General, Roberto Azevêdo, abandoned the “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” principle, sometimes called the “single undertaking” to increase momentum in the negotiations. Single undertaking basically states that every item of the negotiation is a part of the whole package to be accepted by all members, and they can not be agreed upon separately. Many people think that this rule is responsible for the death of Doha. However, it has actually been a significant tool for ensuring everyone is satisfied with the results. The loss of this rule has opened a door for developed countries to take what they want, such as trade facilitation and investments, while developing countries still wait for market access for their agricultural products.
Abandoning single undertaking may have positive results, however, such as allowing for the signing of the TFA, which bundled a few issues from the Doha Round. The TFA, the result of the 2013 Bali conference, was seen as a breakthrough since it was the first multilateral trade agreement adopted since the 1994 conclusion of the Uruguay Round. The TFA, which comes into force once two-thirds of the WTO members have formally accepted it, covers issues such as improving customs procedures while reducing documents and formalities, simplifying transit procedures, and creating norms for publication of laws. No doubt, this agreement will contribute to international trade and create a more efficient environment for exporters while challenges ahead remain. And of course, remembering that even the signing of the TFA was problematic due to India’s insistence on concessions around stockpiling food, it may be reasonable to expect similar obstacles in the future.
These experiences reflect how hard the road ahead may be. We will see how the 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in December leaves its mark on the 20th anniversary of the WTO. The proposed agenda shows a busy schedule with a focus on programmes for small economies and small companies. However, many may expect to see the Director General trying hard to convince members to complete the legal procedures for the TFA.