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WTO Doha Round Talks Continue At Technical Level

by Ulrika Lomas,, Brussels

19 December 2006

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy reported to the General Council last week that an increasing level of engagement is starting to appear in consultations by the Chairs of the Doha Round negotiating groups. However he stressed the need to maintain the rhythm of the informal work that recently restarted the stalled Doha process.

'Since I last reported to the General Council in October,' said M Lamy, 'I have continued my contacts with Ministers, Senior Officials and members of parliaments, visiting among other places Brussels and Washington. I have also attended the APEC Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, the 20 th Anniversary of the launching of the Uruguay Round in Montevideo, and the IPU Parliamentary Conference on the WTO. In all my contacts, the desire to come back to the negotiating table, and to do so rapidly, has been clear. The political will to conclude the Round is being reaffirmed constantly across the board. New flexibilities have been announced by major players in general terms. The challenge remains to translate this political will and these flexibilities signals into substantive changes in position, which are necessary in order to unblock the process.

'In this context, I convened an informal meeting of the TNC on 16 November. I did so in the light of the signals I had received in my contacts with officials at every level, of a growing and widely-shared desire to make the most of every opportunity to lay the foundations for further progress. It had become clear that the number and frequency of informal contacts among Members, both in Geneva and beyond, which had been going on since the summer, had increased. I suggested that it was time to start to multilateralize these contacts and bring them back to the Negotiating Groups in Geneva.

'In my opening remarks at this meeting, which were circulated in document JOB(06)/255, I set out a number of suggestions on what this would mean in practical terms. I made it clear that I was encouraging the Negotiating Group Chairs to carry out contacts and consultations as they judged most appropriate, underlining that it was only they who could determine the way ahead in each area and the speed with which the work should take place.

'At the conclusion of the meeting, I was able to note a consensus on the working method I had suggested, which gave the green light to the Chairs to take up again their processes, in accordance of course with the usual principles of transparency and inclusiveness.

'In line with what was agreed, the Chairs have started talking to Members in a variety of formats, from “fireside chats” to “transparency forums”, in order to explore possible options to take the negotiations ahead. Following the lead taken by the Chair of the Agriculture Special Session which I referred to at our 16 November informal TNC, the Chairs of the other Negotiating Groups are also now hard at work, undertaking the contacts and consultations they judge most appropriate, bearing in mind the different circumstances of the various Negotiating Groups.

'I know that the Chairs are all mindful of the over-arching need for transparency and inclusiveness in their work, and a good number of open-ended consultations have been held so that they can inform participants of the contacts and consultations they have had and to offer all delegations an opportunity to exchange views.

'While no real changes in numbers, notably in agriculture domestic support or tariff protection have shown up in these discussions so far, an increasing level of engagement is starting to appear. I believe this indicates a willingness to enter into discussions on substance. Members also continue to have contacts among themselves, in many cases to try to refine their negotiating positions, and I would encourage them to continue to do so. I know that further contacts are planned, including some at ministerial level early next year, at the invitation of our Swiss colleagues.'

Lamy continues to remind negotiators of the limited time remaining for talks. "There must be significant progress by the early spring if we are to have a chance of finishing the round next year," he said recently.

President Bush is due to lose his 'fast-track' trade treaty authority next June. While it is too late to complete the Doha Round by then, there remains a chance - albeit a slim one now that Democrats are in charge in Congress - that his authority might be extended for a few months to prevent a new treaty from being savaged to death in the Senate.

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