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Deiss finds safety in numbers in Hong Kong

Deiss (centre) is leading the Swiss delegation in Hong Kong

(Keystone)

As talks on a global trade accord continue in Hong Kong, the Swiss economics minister tells swissinfo why there is safety in numbers at the negotiating table.

Joseph Deiss, the head of the Swiss delegation at the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit, is representing the interests of the G10 group of net agricultural importers.

Switzerland, together with countries such as Japan and Norway which heavily subsidise domestic farming, has come under mounting pressure to abandon agricultural import tariffs.

Ahead of the summit – billed as a do-or-die attempt to breathe life into stalled trade-liberalisation negotiations – Deiss said he was prepared to make some concessions on farming.

But he made it clear that the G10 group was ready to defend its interests in the face of attempts to conclude the current round of trade talks by the end of next year.

swissinfo: What do the G10 group of countries have in common and what are your main priorities?

Joseph Deiss: We are all net importers of agricultural products. We all need to maintain our own agricultural infrastructure – and for a variety of reasons. What I am talking about here is multifunctional agriculture.

We can't tackle [the agriculture dossier] exclusively from the point of view of food. There are all sorts of other things to consider, such as the environment, the countryside, society and the preservation of our cultural heritage. Some of our agricultural products are part of this cultural heritage and we can't just abandon them. A good piece of Gruyère or Emmental is not just any old slice of cheese!

swissinfo: What differences are there between the G10 members?

J.D.: There are differences of focus when it comes to agriculture. Japan, for example, is particularly concerned about rice, whereas Switzerland places more of a priority on milk products.

Another difference is that we do not all have the same protectionist systems. In Switzerland we are much more advanced when it comes to domestic subsidies [for farmers] than the Norwegians and Japanese. We no longer subsidise farmers according to the quantities of wheat or milk that they produce. We pay them a flat rate based on the amount of land they own.

But when all is said and done the G10 countries have more in common than we have differences and this means we can put forward common policies and shared goals. All of which obviously gives us much more clout when it comes to negotiations.

swissinfo: What means do the G10 members have at their disposal to try and influence the outcome of the talks?

J.D.: We are able to make sure others notice us and we are listened to. The WTO functions on the basis of consensus. Decisions always have to be unanimous and any one member state has the power to block everything.

Of course when you are one country among others it is difficult to be the one which blocks the talks, which is why over the years various groups of countries with shared interests have come together. This helps with negotiations because it's just not practical to always have 149 people sitting around one table. We negotiate in groups of 20.

Together with the Japanese, I represent the nine countries which make up the G10. Three or four countries represent the G20 group of emerging countries, while the European Union is represented by two commissioners. The different groups come up with their own positions and these then serve as the basis for discussion.

swissinfo: The positions of the G10 and the EU are often very close. Wouldn't it be more efficient to work together as one bloc?

J.D.: We do work together in the sense that we exchange information almost on a daily basis. We also try to see how we can coordinate our objectives. In short, there are many factors which lead us to work closely together.

But for a number of reasons we do not sit down together as a single group. For one thing, it's complicated enough for the EU to come up with a common position which satisfies all of its 25 member states.

Here in Hong Kong you see that the EU commissioners are supported by 25 agriculture ministers and often also 25 trade ministers. They all meet together, give their advice and work out their positions.

So you see that creating a single group would be far too complicated. Having said that, what you do find as the talks go on is that different groups move closer together and defend common positions.

swissinfo-interview: Pierre-François Besson in Hong Kong

In brief

The sixth ministerial conference of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization is taking place in Hong Kong until Sunday.

The aim is to breathe new life into the stalled Doha round of global trade negotiations.

Switzerland presides over the G10, a group of nine countries which are leading net importers of agricultural products. The members include South Korea, Japan, Norway, Iceland, Israel and Taiwan.

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