The World Trade Organization’s Doha round appears dead after members recently dealt separately with export subsidies, which were one of the three areas on which agricultural negotiations are based.
Countries agreed at the WTO ministerial meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in December to eliminate agricultural export subsidies but didn’t agree on whether to push forward with negotiations on market access and domestic support.
Doha was launched in 2001 with an ambitious agenda to lower trade barriers and help poorer countries develop. However, talks have stalled, leading countries to negotiate bilateral and regional trade agreements instead.
Claire Citeau, executive director of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, said the organization was disappointed with the Nairobi decision.
She said the Doha round was supposed to address all three areas, and the Nairobi agreement doesn’t mean any substantial benefits for Canadian exporters.
“I think it’s been an ongoing disappointment that the negotiations have not yet achieved the objectives that were set out for market access and domestic support,” she said.
“Our members don’t really have concerns about export credits or export subsidies. I think some sectors might benefit from the end of export credit, maybe cereals and sugar to some extent, but overall if you look back at the original objectives, there is really a lot left on the table.”
Errol Halkai, trade analyst and acting director of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said eliminating export subsidies was a case of picking the low-hanging fruit.
All members had agreed for a long time that export subsidies were the most trade distorting and should be eliminated, he added.
However, he said he was surprised the meeting in Kenya resulted in anything at all.
“The way things were going into Nairobi, there was a lot of pessimism about anything being achieved,” he said.
Halkai said the last several WTO ministerial meetings have not come up with anything of substance, and a work plan to further the Doha negotiations has been elusive.
However, he said there was pressure to produce something.
The decision on export subsidies affects developing and least developed countries more than others and gives them a sense that the WTO is addressing their concerns.
It would affect Canadian dairy exports, but a side deal for dairy and some products from other countries won’t require an immediate elimination of subsidies.
As well, the Nairobi decision is not binding.
“None of the terms of this agreement are subject to dispute resolution as everything else that WTO comes up with is,” Halkai said.
“This is based on good faith.”
Citeau said Canada would prefer a strong multilateral agreement because bilateral and regional agreements have their limitations.
“They are generally limited to market access negotiations and don’t address disparities in domestic and export support so that’s why, while they are good and needed, they cannot be a substitute for the multilateral trading system,” Citeau said.
Halkai said the WTO is the only place to address domestic support, and it also offers dispute resolution.
“That’s a big issue for us because we face the U.S., which is the biggest user of domestic support, and the EU (European Union), and so that’s the only forum where we can address those,” he said.
The WTO now must decide on whether to continue with Doha negotiations, he added. Many believe there is no point, but no one wants to say that publicly, he added.
Ministerial meetings are held every two years. Halkai said a WTO decision to officially declare Doha dead would likely require ministerial approval.