WTO deal in limbo, US still hopeful

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As WTO members made a last-hour push in Geneva to salvage the trade facilitation pact, India continued to stand firm, saying there was no change in stance. This was so even after visiting US secretary of state John Kerry and secretary of commerce Penny Pritzker urged India to sign the deal.

“Our stand remains the same,” commerce and industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman told journalists after a meeting with US secretary of commerce. She said the WTO’s Bali issues were not discussed during her meeting with Pritzker.

However, a glimmer of hope emerged in Kerry’s statement, in which he said he had asked India “to find a path here where there is a compromise that meets both needs, and we think that’s achievable.”

The issue figured pro­minently during the Indo-US strategy dialogue between Kerry and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on Thursday.

India’s commerce secretary Rajeev Kher said on Thursday that India had suggested “a way of action” to break the impasse. India has been insisting that there can’t be a trade facilitation agreement (new customs rules) without a commitment on food security and public procurement. New Delhi has demanded a halt to a globally agreed timetable on trade facilitation and said a permanent agreement on food stockpiling must be in place at the same time, well ahead of a 2017 target agreed last December in Bali.

The WTO members have to adopt the protocol on the trade facilitation agreement (TFA) by late Thursday night as per the Bali declaration. However, they have time till 2017 to arrive at a single undertaking. India has suggested that the negotiations be extended till December with a review in October on the progress made on food security and the concerns of the least developed nations.

“Consultations were on in Geneva. Let us wait for the final outcome,” Swaraj said when asked if there had been any forward movement on the contentious issue. Swaraj declined to say anything beyond this.

Kerry said while the US recognised India’s “legitimate” concerns on food security, it would be in the interests of India to agree to the trade facilitation agreement to boost its domestic economy and create more job opportunities.

“I am an optimist, I am hopeful that within the period of today... there is a common ground that is found,” Pritzker told a news channel. “Right now India has a four-year window where it's been given a safe harbour where nothing happens.”

“If they don't sign up and be part of the agreement, they will lose that and then (they will) be out of line or out of the compliance with the WTO,” she added.

There are experts who believe that the TFA will result in additional $1 trillion global trade and create 21 million jobs but are other experts say this figure is exaggerated. Several in the Indian industry too wanted early signing of TFA but at the same time agreed the protecting the Indian farmers and food security of poor too were equally important.

India has also suggested tweaking of the wording 'perpetual protection' to 'public procurement’ until a permanent solution is found to the issue, one of three issues that formed single undertaking of the WTO ministerial declaration in Bali.

WTO director General Roberto Azevedo is meeting officials in Geneva as part of his last- ditch effort to end the impasse on issues related with TFA and public stock-holding for food security purposes. The TFA protocol was to be signed by the July 31 deadline.

There is however no sanctity about deadlines in the WTO as several deadlines have been missed in the Doha round of multilateral negotiations mainly because of the adamant stance and tough posturing by the industrialised nations, particularly the US and EU.


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