WTO talks stagger on

Launched in the Middle-Eastern state of Qatar in November 2001, the Doha Development Round is the first to be held under the auspices of the WTO.


But its roots lie in the previous Round under GATT, namely the Uruguay Round.


That agreement, which was negotiated between 1987 and 1994 and implemented over the next six years, was the first time that agriculture was brought into the trade liberalisation process.


The deal provided for a 20% cut in trade distorting domestic farm supports, a 36% average cut in import tariffs and a 36% cut in the level of export subsidies.


The Uruguay Round also included a commitment to launch a further trade Round, to build on the fairly modest start just made in agriculture.


This new Round was supposed to be launched in Seattle in 1999.


But the violent intervention of anti-globalisation protestors soon put a stop to that.


A second attempt was made in November 2001 in Doha and, against a backdrop of mounting world tension following the 11 September World Trade Centre attacks, the Doha Development Round eventually got off the ground, with the emphasis very much on helping poor countries.


The ministerial declaration called for “substantial improvements in market access; reductions of, with a view to phasing out, all forms of export subsidies; and substantial reductions in trade distorting domestic support”.


Since then negotiations have stuttered from one crisis to another, characterised by missed deadlines and recriminations among trading blocs.


The so-called “modalities” – the actual amounts and time by which tariffs and subsidies have to be reduced – were supposed to be agreed in March 2003.


But that never happened, ostensibly because the EU was too busy with its own CAP reform.


Cancun in September 2003 was the next opportunity, but almost resulted in the abandonment of the whole Round due to disagreements over the level of ambition.


Following a prolonged period of reflection, the Round was brought back on course in 2004 with the “July Framework Agreement”.


This included, for the first time, a commitment by the EU to end all export subsidies on agricultural goods, so long as there was equivalent movement by the USA in respect of its export credits and food aid.


The July framework also agreed that import tariffs should be reduced by a “tiered approach”.


Since then, much work has focused on converting all import tariffs into ad valorem equivalents, expressed as a percentage of each product value, rather than as a flat rate per kilogram or tonne.


The next stage is to agree “modalities”, setting the extent of any cuts and the timeframe for implementing them.


This is what next week’s meeting in Hong Kong was supposed to do.


But progress in the run-up has been far slower than needed and most commentators now expect an interim agreement at best.


The aim is still to complete the Round by the end of 2006, ready to apply the new disciplines from 2007 or 2008.