WTO after Cancun
In Cancún the countries of the South have successfully stood up to the behemoths of world trade. Still, their concerns and interests are finding it difficult to be taken seriously. Even in the positions taken by Switzerland, they were low on the agenda. Cancun shows that the WTO must undergo fundamental change, if it is to emerge from the impasses. - Article published in: Swiss Coalition News, Nr. 36, November 2003
Michel Egger, Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations (Alliance Sud)
Taking part in a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation is a special experience. You find yourself in the midst of a gigantic game of poker, where the players are merciless and false cards are often used. Ostensibly, everyone supports «development». The 10-page final declaration of the WTO Doha Conference (November 2001) alone contains 63 occurrences of this concept! In reality, everyone is defending their own interests by hook or by crook, forging sometimes strange alliances around themselves and living by the «You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours» precept.
Switzerland too plays by these rules, even if its weapons are not as finely honed as those of other countries. The official delegation came to Cancún with two objectives. First, they wanted to limit the damage to agriculture and so calm the farmers' referendum fever. Second, they wanted to secure the best possible outcome for Swiss enterprises and advocated deep cuts in duties on manufactures and the launch of negotiations on investment.
Regarding investment, Switzerland could count on the full support of the EU, not so for agriculture, however. «Cancún» has disrupted traditional alliances. The club of those favouring multifunctional agriculture seemed disunited and ineffective. The EU had more weighty matters in hand, more specifically, holding the USA in check. So a Switzerland somewhat isolated in Cancún had no choice but to form an alliance that was somewhat self-mockingly called the Woodlice International, for these insects are given to gathering in the dark. It included ten States all of which were keen to safeguard their highly protected farming sector. It was an alliance which had no great weight.
The «needs and interests of developing countries» – still described as central in the Doha work programme – were thus relegated to the background in Switzerland’s negotiating brief as well. Concerns of paramount importance to the South, such as «implementation of existing WTO agreements» or «special and differential treatment» were not discussed at the daily briefings of the Swiss Delegation, even though one of the Conference's five working groups was addressing these issues.
The rather defensive and Swiss-centric opening statement by Federal Councillor Joseph Deiss made it clear that Switzerland would not be actively championing development issues. Switzerland did not specifically support either the initiative of the West African States against cotton export subsidies being accorded by the USA and the EU, or the call by 30 countries of the South for better protection for crucial agricultural products.
In his concluding assessment, the Federal Councillor refused to speak of a failure: «On the one hand our agriculture now has some breathing space; on the other, and I do regret this, everything will be somewhat delayed. The first ones to pay the price will be the poorest countries. For it must be assumed that bilateral agreements will now be proliferating, and this will benefit the developed countries primarily».
Back to the law of the jungle?
I am having some difficulty sharing this assessment. Cancún was surely a missed opportunity to lend some substance to the so-called development round. Deploring new delays, however, evokes only a weary smile, for after all, the poorest countries have been waiting years for the promises of the Uruguay Round to be honoured in their favour. For the countries in the South, no agreement is better than a bad agreement as things currently stand. And the compromise document that lay on the table at the end of the Cancún Conference was bad, unbalanced and much too strongly focused on the interests of the North. It didn’t take seriously into consideration the concerns and views that many developing countries wanted to bring to the negotiating table.
On the other hand, Federal Councillor Deiss rightly warned against the danger of renewed bilateralism. This is highly disadvantageous to poor countries. They have hardly any chances of pushing through their interests in bilateral negotiations, where the law of the jungle holds sway. But the Federal Councillor's analysis must be taken further. Despite the existence of the (multilateral) WTO, bilateralism has continued to thrive not only at the political and military levels, but also in trading relations. The one therefore does not rule out the other.
Besides, the question arises as to who is to blame for the current crisis of multilateralism. Is it not somewhat cheap to point the finger at those developing countries that dared to challenge the major trading powers? For which country was it that only a few months after the WTO Doha Ministerial Conference substantially raised farm subsidies and import duties on steel? The USA simply dispenses with the WTO when the latter no longer serves its interests. In its imperial strategy, the USA has hitherto negotiated countless bilateral and regional trade agreements. And what of the EU, which wants to make a solo bid for rapprochement with Chile, Mercosur and North Africa?
Instead of deploring delays, one should rather be wondering what is amiss in the WTO multilateral forum. Are not the developing countries becoming increasingly impatient because they have had enough of the hypocrisy of the rich countries? Because they are fed up of not being taken seriously, and frustrated at still not being fully involved in decision-making processes? Does the fiasco at Cancun not have to do with deficiencies in the functioning of the WTO and in its negotiation procedures? It is a pity that Joseph Deiss and the Swiss Delegation did not ask themselves such questions as well.
A deadly system
The WTO is today deep in crisis; it has reached its limits. To move beyond this, it must undertake thoroughgoing reform. It must reform its functioning and become more democratic and transparent. But it must also review content by finally dissociating itself from neoliberal dogma and looking at the real world and the destructive consequences of its policies hitherto.
Power relationships, tricks and manipulations are no basis whatsoever on which to build a sustainable, balanced or even fair commercial order. There is urgent need for one. For the seemingly nitpicking legal wrangling and games of alliances hold life and death implications for millions of people. That was what the South Korean farmer wanted to remind us of when he took his life on the barricades at Cancún. As long as those with the say in the WTO fail to grasp the fact that while they do not put people first and give priority to such crucial principles as food security, no «development round» will be possible. And the WTO will remain a cold, unjust, paralysed monster.
Contact: Michel Egger, Alliance Sud