Even as the negotiations to have a global trade deal seem in the doldrums, Harsha Vardhana Singh, deputy director general, World Trade Organization (WTO), believes the modalities can be concluded if serious negotiations take place. In an interaction with Nayanima Basu on the sidelines of a Ficci event, he elaborated on the state of play in the talks concerning agriculture and industrial goods. Edited excerpts:
Do you think the deadline of 2010 is achievable? Are we looking at yet another timeline in the coming G20 meet?
I do not know what the G20 would come up with. It is possible to conclude modalities with a greater level of engagement in 2010 but that depends on the negotiations. The unsettled issues are relatively more difficult and these need more effective negotiations. Senior official-level meetings are going on and timelines do help a lot.
Is the perception of a stalemate correct?
Movements takes place on a number of issues at the same time and sometimes these issues are discussed, not necessarily with every member concerned. The kind of movements that have taken place might require greater multi-lateralisation.
Is India still seen as one of the deal-breakers in the process?
India is a very active player in the negotiations, in all issues. Its role has to be a type of strategic thinker in forming coalition views. It engages in its own independent manner. No one sees India as the stumbling block. India is concerned that it would like to see reflection of its own interest in the multi-larteralisation process.
What is the state of play on agriculture, non-agricultural market access (Nama) and services?
On special products, the negotiating group’s chair’s text has been considered settled. Safeguards’ mechanism (SSM) is still a major unfinished item. Recently, there was a table brought out analysing the real problem. Members are now thinking in terms of how to sort the problem out. This is a common problem between the exporting and the importing countries. The exporting countries see this as a protection mechanism and the importing countries sees this as a measure to protect domestic industry. However, there had been progress in services. There had been progress in giving greater clarity to fisheries’ subsidies, in taking forward the issue of SSM, in taking forward the issue of additional market access in a more focused way. What is required is serious negotiations. I expect that engagement would start taking place soon.
What are the main demands of the US at present? Do you think they will be able to engage fully without the fast-track mechanism?
The US had always been active on market access considerations and fisheries’ subsidies. Fisheries is still an issue and an unresolved one. More engagement is required there. These are interests and part of the mandate, so everyone has to negotiate. A fast-track mechanism in the past has not helped in getting the deal agreed. That is not a necessary condition to conclude. In the past,too, in the Uruguay Round, it had not stopped the negotiations and the deal was agreed.
Is it true that issues concerning environmental protection and labour laws are increasingly creeping into the negotiations?
These are not creeping in. These are actions which developed countries are emphasing in terms of their own policy considerations. This is not part of the negotiations. Climate change has a different track altogether; trade is only a part of it. The way to address climate change is also through that track and once the climate change people decide how trade will fit in, this issue could be brought to WTO, subsequently.
Meanwhile, in the Doha mandate, the issue of trade and environment is being discussed, in which the most important thing is environmental goods and services. They are being discussed outside the negotiations and not in WTO per se. But, nothing on labour standards is being discussed.
Are we looking at yet another ministerial in the coming months?
We need more effective engagement, which is more important than any deadline. A number of informal ministerial meetings are going on, so there is no specific reason for a more focused meeting in Geneva for this. What is required now is more serious engagements between officials who would take the process forward and take it to the next level, which is not happening.