‘Suspended pessimism’ remains Doha mood

Bilateral discussions have continued between the key participants in the Doha Round farm trade talks, most recently in London, but although clarification of the issues and what might be possible continues, there has been little real progress. Key participants in Geneva have described the overall mood as one of ‘suspended pessimism’.

One change is that India has now got more involved in the series of conversations that have hitherto primarily involved the EU, US and Brazil. They had stood aside from the intense meetings between the key players that led to the resumption of negotiations agreed at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

However, India’s role so far is not seen as particularly helpful. Susan Schwab, the US trade representative, said that progress with the Europeans and Brazilians was not matched by a willingness by Delhi to make concessions.

India has been taking a hard line on the ‘sensitive products’ exemption. This is also an area of concern for the EU as a means of protecting its most marginal farmers. But if too many concessions are allowed, a coach and horses would be driven through the agreement.

India is also being insistent about the ‘special safeguard mechanism’ which would permit developing countries to block sudden surges of imports from particular agricultural products. NGO critics have long argued that ‘no agreement is better than a bad agreement’, but there is a point beyond which the same argument could be made from a free trade perspective.

No one really knows what the outcome will be, but I would put the chances of a successful agreement at less than fifty per cent. But then there were many times in the Uruguay Round when the position looked hopeless.

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