Business & Policy
All Things Considered: November 2011
By Jim Knisley
For the last 10 years the frequent flyer miles have been piling up for leaders of Canada’s poultry industry. The WTO Doha Round presented a real threat to supply management and the leaders had to be at meetings to represent the industry and attempt to influence politicians and trade officials.
Now, finally, an end is in sight. But, and this is a big but, there are lawyers involved, and politicians who hate to admit failure.
Charles Dickens would understand the perils of involving lawyers. And if the WTO’s Doha round continues beyond its December ministerial meeting it may be time to open Bleak House and tremble.
In Bleak House, Dickens writes a fictional account of a court case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The case concerns the fate of a large inheritance. It drags on for generations.
“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means,” Dickens wrote.
The lawsuit is resolved near the end of the novel after legal costs consumed the entire estate and all that was left were bale upon bale of legal papers.
Doha may be headed the same direction.
Swiss Info recently wrote about the start of construction of a new wing at the WTO headquarters in Geneva and expanded the story into a discussion of Doha.
“Doha as it was initially planned is probably dead,” said Cédric Dupont, professor of international relations at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute. “Lamy is clearly shopping for ideas on what to do next and the indication is that the organization is at a loss where it wants to go,” said Dupont.
But Doha may continue despite the futility of the exercise.
“Most WTO staff are lawyers. It’s an organization to enforce existing agreements not designed to strike deals. So will members say forget negotiation within the WTO and just enforce agreements? That would be difficult for them to accept.”
In other words Doha could grind on and on. As in Jarndyce, generations will pass, paper will pile, no one will remember what it’s about and it will end only when there is no money left.
You may think this far-fetched and point out that Jarndyce is fiction. But a case in India has been reported as lasting more than 175 years.
It began in 1823, when an estate was bequeathed to seven sons. It first went to court in 1833, when a case to try to stop the sale of some land began. After 22 years, a lawyer was appointed to oversee the property and the case continued and continued.
Over the ensuing years boundaries have changed and much of the land in dispute is now in Bangladesh.
Although the Doha round is only a decade old it seems some are determined ensure it drags on.
Take the Cairns Group. Its recent meeting in Saskatoon resulted in a statement that was pure boilerplate. In fact, it was worse than that, it was essentially a recitation of principles laid out at the group’s founding many years ago.
“Cairns Group calls for freer trade, reduction of subsidies” was the headline. This was, as I recall, virtually the same headline that came out of the first meeting and the same headline has emerged every year since.
The group wants to jump-start the WTO’s Doha Round. The plan seems to be to spend the next few months talking to other countries (this is a new strategy?) in the hope that making the same old arguments will produce a different result.
Even an optimist would conclude that the chances of a breakthrough are slim. The Americans, for example, have given up.
“One thing is clear: What we are doing today in the Doha negotiations is not working. That is not a value statement, but a simple assessment of the facts. After 10 years, we’re deadlocked,” U.S. Ambassador to the WTO Michael Punke said recently.
“The first thing that is really critical is that all members of the WTO admit right now that what we’re doing isn’t working,” Punke said.
WTO members are in deep disagreement on the extent to which rich countries should cut farm subsidies and tariffs on farm and manufactured goods and the extent to which developing countries should open their markets in agriculture, manufacturing and services.
Karel De Gucht, the EU commissioner for trade, told the European Parliament: “The prospects for reaching concrete negotiating results in the short term look rather bleak.”