In his introductory remarks about the work plan for the next three months and beyond, the chair proposed a continuation of the three-track path in the agriculture negotiations, with the Committee on Agriculture in special session remaining as the main negotiation forum, flanked by the working group process and the chair’s informal consultations with members.
The chair appealed to members to guide the discussions in the committee towards a negotiation-focused mode as the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) is only one year away. The chair said that in his consultations with several delegations, they agreed that high-level meetings planned for the second half of 2019 might be possible stepping stones in galvanizing the negotiation process towards a positive outcome. The time between May and July would be critical therefore to paving the way to achieve that purpose, he said.
With regard to the substance of the negotiations, the chair summarised his consultations with delegations. He noted that domestic support, public stockholding for food security purposes (PSH) and cotton were the most frequently mentioned priority issues. Market Access was generally seen as very difficult by many delegations due to its complexity, and it is hard to foresee any substantive progress in the short term, he said. Some members referred to tariff peaks, tariff escalation, tariff simplifications and special agricultural Safeguard (SSG) (SSGs) as some of the first issues that should be addressed. However, other members cautioned against cherry-picking. Several members believe export competition is unfinished business and deserves continuous effort, he said.
The chair noted that several delegations had supported an outcome on Export restrictions, and in particular a proposed waiver from the application of export restrictions for food purchases by the World Food Programme for non-commercial humanitarian purposes. This could be an area where members see the potential to achieve an incremental outcome. Work remains to be done to reach full consensus, the chair said.
Some delegations also suggested that improving transparency could be part of an outcome or even be the most realistic outcome for MC12 but several delegations also expressed the views that an outcome on transparency only would fall far short of expectations.
Finally, the chair noted that linkages within agriculture and with other areas of the negotiations were frequently mentioned. Some members asked for an outcome on agriculture to be part of a bigger package while many others cautioned against linkages. Some members reiterated that the priority should be topics with long overdue mandates. Other members questioned the feasibility of cherry-picking and stand-alone outcomes.
The chair described what in his view could be three types of possible outcomes for the negotiation phase: first, an outcome on strengthening transparency, which is a topic brought up most frequently across all areas of agriculture; second, some limited, incremental but also substantive outcome on selected topics, such as cotton, public stockholding, some elements in domestic support and maybe one or two aspects of market access; third, a broader and more balanced, multi-topic package with an outcome across all three pillars of agriculture reform.
The chair admitted he was fully aware of the difficulties in reaching a substantive outcome at the 12th Ministerial Conference. It had been noted by some delegations that the current overall negotiation context, including the debate on special and differential treatment, was not helpful. “But precisely because of this, we should carefully step on the accelerator, turn the corner, and we might get on the home straight, with a view towards the finishing line and reaching our goal in a timely manner.”
Working group process and substance of the negotiations
Members highly commended the chair’s efforts in seeking creative channels to strengthen communications and information sharing in the committee, which had led to genuine interest and new elements in some areas. Most members, including leading agriculture players, reaffirmed their strong support for continuing the exercise. Some urged the membership to move from long-standing positions and be more open to discussions. A strong call was made by many for the need to table more technical papers and submissions to create a real member-driven process.
What is less ideal in the new process, said some members, was the intensity and high frequency of the seven working group meetings, which some small delegations found difficult to follow. The complexity of the question-based meetings also posed challenges to some delegations’ technical capacity in answering all the pre-meeting questions in a timely fashion. Several members insisted on the critical importance of preserving a positive and open “climate” in the working group meetings, aimed at better understanding each other’s position and problems.
Whether the timing is ripe for negotiation remains an open question, said some members, but most indicated they would like to give it a try, as agriculture reform is evidently the most important issue on their agenda. Many members offered their views on the priority options. One member warned others not to rush into negotiations without more thorough technical discussions and a deeper understanding of the state of play. That member also said transparency might be a low-hanging fruit for the 12th Ministerial Conference.
Regarding some suggestions to reuse and update old proposals to speed up the pace of submissions, one member did not agree. It said the old proposals did not reflect the changing environment and had already failed at past ministerial conferences; reusing those old proposals could only wind up in the same trap of failure and new ideas were necessary.
Reports from seven working groups
On the first day of the special session, members heard the reports from the co-coordinators of the seven working groups, summarizing the discussions in their respective meetings. All groups cited the highly-engaged discussions and candid exchange on each topic. Russia introduced its new submission on enhancing transparency in applied tariffs, in relation to market access (Job/AG/154).
Benin, on behalf of the Cotton-4 group of countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali), announced their initiative to request that the UN General Assembly recognize 7 October as World Cotton Day, to celebrate cotton at a global level. Members congratulated the Cotton -4 on this significant initiative and stated their support for the launch event to be hosted by the WTO on 7 October 2019 in support of the Cotton-4 initiative. The proposed programme will include a high-level plenary, a partners’ conference, multiple side events, a cotton exhibition and a fashion show. The launch event to be hosted by the WTO is organized in partnership with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, International Trade Centre, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the International Cotton Advisory Committee.
To wrap up the discussions, the chair took note of members’ concern about the frequency and “climate” in the working group meetings. He said he would reach out to delegations to ensure all views are listened to, respected and accommodated.
The chair said the new schedule for working group meetings will be based on substance and on demand, and will try to focus more on moving towards proposals that can lead to outcomes. He will consider the possibility of summarizing all the discussions in the working group meetings for the benefit of absent members.
The chair also reiterated that his outline for the next stage of work was aimed at intensifying the discussions and incentivizing members to reflect harder on possible choices without prejudice to new ideas or trying to pre-shape the outcome. Another review on the working group process will be conducted in July, he added.
The next three Committee on Agriculture special session meetings are tentatively scheduled for 28-29 May, 20-21 June and 15-16 July.
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