Sunday 18th December: It’s over, but only just
Probably the best move that our delegation made today was to take the morning off from the conference centre to join Hong Kong Friends for Meeting and lunch. In what has been a tiring and frustrating day for all, it was good to take some time out, meet new Friends and think about something other than tariffs and quotas!
When we arrived at the conference centre just after three, it soon became clear that for those of us restricted to “Phase 2” of the conference centre very little was happening. This was not really surprising as we had heard on the news earlier this morning that yesterday’s Heads of Delegations meeting where the revised ministerial text was discussed, had gone right through the night and broke up about eight this morning. It would take time to make the necessary revisions to the text and for ministers to discuss the night’s outcome amongst their coalition groups, with the relevant ministries in their capital cities and with the rest of their delegations.
According to those we spoke to, a number of press conferences had been cancelled and everyone was quite literally sitting around waiting for news. Eventually word got around that another version of the draft text had emerged and the usual scramble started as people rushed to get hold of a copy. Delegations however seemed to be locked down pouring over the changes that had been made and making decisions as to which parts of it could be considered acceptable. This paper, with a number of minor amendments was in the end. adopted as the formal ministerial conference declaration.
India, Brazil and then the rest of the G20 were the first to break the silence. India came out fairly heavily in favour of what was being proposed. Minister of Commerce and Industry, Kamal Nath welcomed the proposed deal, stating that it established “contours” for the rest of the round and that at last things seemed to be heading in the right direction. Crucially we learned, that providing there were no major amendments when the heads of delegations met again, G20 countries were all prepared to accept what had been proposed with regard to agriculture. As agriculture had been a major stumbling block in these talks, it seemed finally that an agreement was in sight.
It is clear however; that on this crucial issue, the G20 did not get everything they wanted. In fact a number of the group’s members, particularly Argentina and Tanzania seemed to be quite reserved and certainly much less keen on the deal than India purported to be. This having been said a number of concessions appear to have been made on at least some of their demands. These, the group emphasised were only possible because of the newfound unity between the various developing country groups that made up the so-called G110 (see blog from Friday 16th Dec). The group had been particularly vocal about the need to establish a date for the end of agricultural export subsidies, preferably before 2010. The EU had been especially reluctant to grant this, but after a long night of hard negotiations, and probably in light of Brussels’ decision yesterday about the EU’s budget, a date was finally set for 2013.
On other development issues, it appeared that there had been some agreement on providing the 49 Least Developed Countries’ goods with duty and quota free access to developed and some developing country markets, which would make it easier for them to sell their goods abroad. Whilst this is certainly a move forward, this agreement was only for 97% of LDC goods, rather than the 100% of goods that they had hoped for. As such it is likely that some countries will put restrictions on the types of Least Developed Country products that can be exported on this basis.
There were a number of areas where some developing countries and some NGOs have expressed concern. In particular groups including Oxfam and Action Aid came out heavily against the agreement on services, which they said would make it more likely that developing countries would have to open up key services like education and health to foreign competition. The World Development Movement claimed that this would wipe out the gains that had been made in agriculture and on duty and quota free market access for the poorest countries.
As ministers went back into negotiations the waiting started again. Rumours circulated that there were still a number of sticking points, particularly on services and on cotton. The former at least was confirmed at the conference’s closing ceremony later on. After about 5pm information screens announced the closing ceremony was due to start in half an hour. 5.30 came and went and the start time was put back by half an hour, this happened again, and again, with rumours that a deal was about to be announced, then that discussions were likely to continue well into the night.
Eventually around 10pm it became clear that something was about to happen. At what felt like a hastily arranged closing session, which we watched from the big screens in the press centre, the chair moved to adopt the draft text and banged his gavel to signify that this was so. Not long afterwards there was a moment of shock as first a Cuban delegate stood up and said that his delegation had reluctantly accepted the agreement and had significant reservations about the text on services. This was shortly followed by a Venezuelan delegate who said that he had similar concerns about the text on agriculture, services, and industrial goods. However, at this point the ministerial declaration had been officially adopted and there was no going back. The chair noted these objections and then promptly moved on to other items of business.
So where does this leave us?
Well, as had been expected for the last month or so, the conference clearly did not deliver the full framework agreement that had been the original expectation. According to the WTO’s director General, the Hong Kong result means that its members are 60% of the way needed to complete the round. The official deadline and aspiration for completion is the end of 2006, although many believe that the real deadline is the end of 2007 when the US government’s mandate from Congress for negotiating trade agreements runs out. Negotiators will now need to go back to Geneva to decide how to take the talks forward and there is an expectation that another ministerial style conference will need to happen in the first half of 2006.
It will probably take some time to digest what has happened and find out what it really means for the world’s poor. A lot needs to be done before we reach the end of this ‘development’ round and before some of the thorniest issues are decided. The hope is, that developing countries will be able to maintain unity and that the political will be found in the developed world so that real gains can be made for the world’s poorest people.
QPSW will be providing more analysis on the outcome of the Hong Kong ministerial conference in the January edition of Better World Economics our newsletter on economic justice, available by email, or by post within the UK. For a free subscription send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
For more impressions from the Hong Kong ministerial conference see the website of the Quaker United Nations Office: http://www.quno.org/