In just over a month, members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will congregate in Bali for the Ninth Ministerial Conference. This meeting is being seen as an important step towards providing the much-needed impetus to the Doha Round, which has suffered an extended impasse. In 2001, when the decision was taken to launch the Doha Round, WTO members had agreed to seal the deal in four years. However, well beyond a decade since, progress in most of the major negotiating areas has been perfunctory. There is, therefore, no doubt that the current round has been the most vexatious of all the negotiating Rounds that the multilateral trading system has seen since it was established in 1948.
An oft-ignored aspect of the Doha Round is that its architects had envisioned a balanced outcome by ensuring that negotiations in all the mandated areas conclude simultaneously. This was reflected in their agreement that the outcome would be in the nature of a “single undertaking”, which really meant that the “Doha Deal” could only be done when WTO Members have concluded agreements on all areas. The WTO-speak in this regard said it all: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. In practical terms, this approach was extremely significant since it sought to curb the tendencies of the more dominant countries to conclude agreements in areas that suited their interests best (euphemistically called “cherry picking”) and to go slow (or even ignore) in areas in which they had to make concessions. Thus, countries could engage in inter-sectoral trade-offs and this was seen as a big step towards ensuring a balanced outcome.
The high ambitions set for the Doha Round have eroded rapidly, particularly since the breakdown of the negotiations in July 2008. The narrow focus of the issues being discussed in the run-up to the Bali Ministerial Conference underlines the extent of erosion of expectations. The agenda engaging the WTO membership looks thin in relation to the overall negotiating mandate of the Round as they cover three areas, viz., trade facilitation, a couple of issues in agriculture and a package for the least developed countries. The focus of the pre-Bali engagement has, however, been on the first two issues.
Since its inclusion in the negotiating mandate in 2004, trade facilitation (TF) has looked as the most likely area in which WTO Members could conclude an agreement. Negotiations on TF have been dealing with several customs-related issues, including