GENEVA — The three-year impasse in world trade talks deepened last week as 153 country representatives met for three days and emerged with no clue about how to restart meaningful negotiations.
It means at least a two-year hiatus while trade officials try to figure out what to do. It could mean much longer.
By that time, the current World Trade Organization Doha Development Agenda trade negotiation will be 12 years old, almost twice as long as any previous multilateral trade negotiation.
Although everyone involved insists Doha still is alive, there are private questions about whether a negotiating mandate formulated in 2011 to help developing countries can be carried on indefinitely.
Some of the 2011 developing countries like China, India and Brazil have grown up during the decade to become developed and agricultural powerhouses.
“It really is hard to justify a negotiation aimed at giving concessions to China when they are out-performing most of us,” said a trade specialist at last week’s WTO ministerial meeting. “You have to ask if the Doha Round is dead and just needs a funeral.”
Players in the system prefer to say Doha is alive but having difficulty.
“I usually like to say it’s not dead, it is resting,” senior federal trade official Don Stephenson told a recent House of Commons trade committee meeting in Ottawa. “It’s difficult in the current global environment to see sufficient leadership being shown to bring the round to an early conclusion.”
Canadian trade minister Ed Fast said the Doha negotiation just needs more time.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of patience,” he said. “Trying to box in any trade negotiation in terms of time is probably a mistake because if you are looking for an optimum outcome and the broadest consensus, you have to leave yourself the flexibility of getting it right.”
Canadian export-oriented agriculture sectors are looking for a new deal to increase their ability to expand markets and reduce the ability of other countries to erect trade barriers or subsidize product into Canada or Canadian markets.
“I think the next two years will be stand still, trying to stop backsliding, trying to keep conditions open for a possible injection of energy,” said Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance executive director Kathleen Sullivan.
For Canada’s supply managed sector, the WTO talks have been a mixed blessing since the widely accepted texts on the table when talks broke down would have forced Canada to sharply reduce protection for supply management.