Doha trade negotiations have shown new signs of life in Geneva after the G20 called 2011 a "window of opportunity" to conclude the talks.
In an interview with swissinfo.ch, Luzius Wasescha, head of the Swiss delegation to the World Trade Organization, says the “unspectacular” but “very important” WTO offices in Geneva are where the heavy lifting happens.
"We address the details to have all the elements on hand for new texts – new bases for negotiation – to come out around March or April,” Wasescha said.
Switzerland’s chief negotiator at the Doha table says the talks need to be revamped to address today’s issues but current negotiations must be wrapped up first.
Wasescha says the political will is there to get the job done and that failure would make it increasingly more difficult to get major players behind the negotiations.
swissinfo.ch: The G20 has called 2011 a "window of opportunity". Why now?
L.W.: The agenda of these negotiations is already ten years old and addresses issues that were more important then than now. For the United States, Brazil, India, China and the European Union, 2011 is a quiet year in terms of policy. There are no elections or deadlines that would slow the process of negotiations.
swissinfo.ch: You mention issues that are less important today than yesterday. Can you give an example?
L.W.: With the sophistication of the international division of labour and some automation in industrial production, international tariffs don’t play much of a role today. This could be negative if you need a large bureaucracy for small amounts, or because some high tariffs exist in theory but not in practice, which undermines legal certainty.
swissinfo.ch: But does that mean that rules for the world of yesterday are trying to be negotiated?
L.W.: We took a step toward modernising the multilateral system. But more and more experts believe that this step was too small.
Another urgent matter is the need to address other issues: competition, particularly in the field of energy, access to raw materials, export restrictions and the implementation in WTO terms of what sustainable development might mean for global commerce. But before doing so, we must finish the current negotiations.
swissinfo.ch: How likely is it that this round will be concluded this year?
L.W.: If the political will exists, particularly among big players like the United States, China, Brazil and India, there is a possibility it will happen. The willingness is there but it must be translated into detailed negotiations. And this is the test we are now undergoing. We'll know more in two months.
swissinfo.ch: What are the consequences of failure?
L.W.: On the purely institutional level, the negotiations would be unsuccessful but the system would function as such. On a psychological level, it would be a setback for the system because it would then be much more difficult to bring a number of major players into the fold, including the United States.
swissinfo.ch: Agriculture is virtually the only issue that has progressed. What has happened?
L.W.: Negotiations on export subsidies are nearly complete. The date for eliminating export subsidies remains an open question. In Hong Kong five years ago, we said 2013. From the Swiss point of view we will need to review this date.
Negotiations on domestic support [subsidies at a national level] are almost complete, except for one vital issue that affects the United States. In talks on lowering tariffs, many questions that are sensitive for Switzerland remain open, such as whether there is an upper limit.
Some issues are advancing and some are blocked – I’m thinking of the environment and geographical indications – by very ambitious members in agriculture. Obviously we cannot conclude talks if there is nothing for Switzerland in these two key areas.
swissinfo.ch: On the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, it says that the Doha round ended in failure in 2006. Is it not problematic in terms of communication that public opinion is not united behind the work of the WTO?
L.W.: The WTO negotiations attract attention when the ministers meet. But most of the talks take place in Geneva within negotiation groups.
However, there has been no real ministerial-level negotiating since summer 2008, hence the perception of failure. But as Pascal Lamy [Director General of the WTO] said, until now, nobody has pulled the plug so the machine still works.
If the Doha talks succeed, Wasescha says it will have the effect of an economic stimulus package since a range of trade barriers would disappear.
Current instruments would then be consolidated. The 2008 crisis has shown that “the rest of the system was good,” he said.
Finally, the talks would further attempts to reduce protections introduced in the context of the crisis.
"In summary, three very large effects without requiring a huge effort on the part of governments," Wasescha said.
At the table
Founded in 1995 on the basis of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) and comprising 153 members, the World Trade Organization (WTO) regulates trade relations between nations. It is the keystone of the legal and institutional multilateral trading system.
Contributing to just 2% of world trade but with every other franc earned abroad, Switzerland considers the international regulations (legal certainty) upon which it relies as vital.
The WTO, in particular, is a forum where existing agreements are developed and new agreements on international trade law are negotiated.
Launched in 2001, the Doha Round addresses about 20 issues. Among them, trade, agriculture, industrial goods, services, strengthening of WTO rules, trade and the environment, and the development or protection of intellectual property.
Defensive on agriculture, Switzerland is campaigning for a liberalisation of services and lower tariffs on industrial products.
An informal meeting of trade ministers will again take place under the auspices of Switzerland on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (Wef) in Davos in late January.
(Translated from French by Tim Neville), swissinfo.ch