December 18, 2005

WTO Conference Ends in Non-Failure!

Well I'll be danged...they reached a...erm...a deal?...ummm...well, they reached a something in Hong Kong after all!

I don't want to glorify this thing they're about to sign with the word "agreement" because it really isn't everyone expected, the final declaration is 90% hole, 10% cheese. That 10% breaks down into three parts: an agonisingly unambitious compromise on an end date to agricultural export subsidies (2013 - the EU got an eight year stay of execution for those monstruosities), a deal on tariff-free market access for least developed countries (which itself contains very big loopholes,) and an agreement to end US cotton export subsidies by next year, (which the US congress may or may not agree to.)

In his first non-stupid comment this week, Mandelson quipped that the deal is "not enough to make the meeting a success, but enough to save it from failure." Now that's the stuff of stirring headlines!

As I stressed in my previous post, the issues they've agreed on make up a very, very minor portion of the WTO's overall agenda. They still don't have agreement on a formula for how to cut industrial tariffs, much less the details of how much each country would have to cut, how much more rich countries would cut than poor countries, how many exceptions each country could invoke, etc. They don't have an agreement on domestic cotton subsidies. They don't have an agreement on agricultural tariffs, or agricultural domestic subsidies, or even what should constitute a banned domestic subsidy. And the services annex they're agreeing to is more a framework for future negotiations than an actual agreement.

Today's text sets a new deadline of April 30 for the members to agree on all those issues! If they honestly think that's a realistic time frame, I want some of whatever they're smoking. If it took them six days of excruciating negotiations to reach this inconsequential nothing of a draft, it's very hard to see what could change between now and April to unblock the negotiations. Maybe trade negotiators are less grouchy in spring...