The Doha round of talks has turned out to be more of a merry-go-round: the same trade issues have been discussed time and again, but with no progress whatsoever. The more things change, the more they remain the same. With the amount of hype that the event had generated, one would have expected some tangible results from the discussion. Instead, all that one got to see was a fair amount of mudslinging by all parties concerned as everyone tried to blame “the other” party for the whole fiasco.
Even Pascal Lamy, the WTO director, came under fire for having convened the discussion when it was well known that the parties concerned have no intention of budging from their respective stands. Countries like the US will keep pushing for a more open agricultural market in developing countries. Similarly, countries like India will continue to argue for a protectionist world order where the concerns of peasants in developing countries are not overlooked. As both parties locked horns on the contentious trade issue, one could almost anticipate a political thriller with the evergreen “rich-vs-poor” debate surfacing yet again.
However, the talks turned out to be more of an anti-climax, with all parties being unable to consent on issues like non-agricultural market access and trade subsidies. Trade pundits have repeatedly tried to analyze the failure of the talks. Several remedies have been suggested, from free trade agreements to bilateral trade pacts. But no single magic potion can be concocted to wish away the debate that lies at the heart of this failure.
To understand the status quo, it is important to closely examine the last round of trade talks that took place in Uruguay in 1994. In an attempt to promote farm liberalization, countries had been asked to introduce straightforward tariffs and weed out the unnecessarily cumbersome system of farm quotas. In such a scenario, protectionist economies were given the freedom to introduce import duties to safeguard the domestic suppliers in case the domestic markets were flooded with imports.
However, this system was introduced only as a quick-fix arrangement without looking into the long-term implications. Attempts were made at a later stage to make changes to these safeguards. By then, it was a case of doing too little too late. Developing and developed nations are yet to arrive at an agreement regarding any proposed model to reform the safeguards.
In such a scenario, is there any point in going ahead with more summits after seven years of repeated failure? Pascal Lamy thinks so. At the risk of sounding over-optimistic, he has often argued that he will continue to convene such summits till a consensus has been achieved. Whether this is a practical option remains to be seen, especially since the parties concerned have already stated that their differences are “irreconcilable”.
With a huge baggage of chronic failure trailing behind it, should we have any expectations from the next round of talks? Countries like Australia and Chile do not think so. Instead, they have chosen to go ahead with establishing bilateral agreements with individual countries. Free trade agreements might not look like the best option on paper, but with little hope of achieving a breakthrough in the current impasse, free trade agreements are the only plausible option that we have.