Why Cancun was doomed from the start
Both the US and the EU used bully tactics in
this meeting similar to 4th Ministerial Meeting
in Doha through phone calls at the heads of state
level and taking advantage of their regional partnerships.
However, this time the intense pressure that was
applied by the US and the EC to pry apart developing
country groupings failed to deliver.
This is partly because some of the coalitions
like the G21 had major powerhouses such as China,
Brazil and India who came together and agreed
to negotiate jointly on the issue of agriculture
and they refused to respond to rumors about various
members defecting from the group. Similarly, the
African Union, the ACP (African, Caribbean and
Pacific grouping of countries) and the Least Developed
Countries (LDCs) joined in an alliance (totaling
61 WTO members) and put forth their joint positions
during the ministerial itself. Though intense
pressure was on them to accept negotiations on
the Singapore issues by the EC, they faced different
pressures from the United States in terms of market
The Alliance was able to stand together and also
gain support from other major developing countries
that opposed the Singapore issues. At the same
time, they gained support from the G21 who demanded
that both the EU and US put their houses in order
first in the agriculture talks.
The EC and the US did not have completely similar
objectives in the Singapore negotiations since
the US could do without investment and competition.
The US wanted unmitigated market access in agriculture
and was not concerned about its domestic subsidies
(one of the three pillars of the agriculture talks),
while the EC was defensive on domestic subsidies.
The pressure applied on countries was diffused
by the fact that both strong regional and issue-based
groupings existed in Cancun. Developing countries
were able to maintain cohesive coalitions with
clearly articulated goals and concerns.
The WTO’s role
There are numerous systemic and political reasons
for the collapse.
Perhaps the biggest two reasons are: 1) the failure
of the institution to acknowledge that developing
countries have different needs and expectations
from the WTO: and 2) the WTO’s practices
for manufacturing consensus are undemocratic.
This was clearly illustrated during the Cancun
Ministerial. Both the US and the EC came empty
handed to the meeting i.e. they had very little
to offer developing countries apart from promises
that increased liberalization will benefit them.
This rhetoric has not delivered.
Since the Doha Ministerial in 2001, the WTO has
asked countries to move ambitiously and quickly
on numerous areas where developing nations are
not ready to negotiate. The US agenda was simply
aggressive-- market access to developing country
markets in the areas of agriculture, services
and industrial goods. They were also happy to
support the EU in pushing for Government Procurement
and Trade Facilitation.
The European Union similarly wanted developing
countries to accept four more issues, make concessions
in market access while maintaining its defensive
stance in agriculture. For most developing countries,
the key area of concern was agriculture and the
various problems they face in this sector.
Ambitious agenda and flawed process
The WTO set itself up for failure. The WTO spent
the past year downplaying the significance of
the 5th Ministerial Meeting as a “mid-term
review” where Trade Ministers would give
the institution the impetus it needed to remove
the deadlock in virtually every area of negotiations.
The past six months in Geneva have been a strange
process of undocumented meetings where chairs
of various committees assumed the tremendous responsibility
of drafting language for the Draft Ministerial
Declaration that Ministers would negotiate here
By the last month in August, it was clear that
major differences could not be resolved amongst
groups of countries in a short period of time
in areas of extreme importance such as agriculture
and Non-Agriculture Market Access (NAMA) and the
fate of the so-called
Singapore Issues (investment, competition, government
procurement and trade facilitation).
In spite of this, the chair of the General Council
and the Director General with the help of the
“Friends of the Chairs” and the Secretariat,
drafted an ambitious declaration with technical
annexes on their “own responsibility”
to forward to Ministers. The text was not a negotiating
document where different positions are clearly
laid out through several options, but largely
their own interpretation of what a “compromise”
could look like. Only the text related to the
Singapore Issues had two options—to continue
examining the issue or to negotiate. The option
to negotiate was backed by annexes that brushed
through what might be potential items to negotiate.
Clearly, this text was highly problematic for
several blocks of countries. And the “framework”
approach for the agriculture, NAMA and Singapore
Issues negotiations contained highly detailed
elements that WTO Ministerials are ill prepared
to handle given their short duration.
Because of the WTO’s failure to reflect
a balanced draft text, several countries submitted
their own proposals to be attached to the Chair’s
text for Ministers to address. As a result, there
were still numerous proposals on the table in
Cancun. A streamlined and transparent process
in Geneva where positions of all members are fairly
reflected could have avoided this. It could have
also been avoided by not expecting Ministers to
make large compromises in 5 days on an extremely
ambitious agenda when members are nowhere near
The way forward
The G21 are a promising development in the WTO.
If they can manage to stick together, they will
serve as an important counterbalance to the economic
and political muscle of the US and the EC. Their
union also has positive implications for broader
global governance where some sort of balance is
urgently needed to prevent superpowers from dictating
the terms of trade, aid and international policies
in favor of their own interests.
The WTO needs to acknowledge and understand that
civil society interested in safeguarding the public
interest is not going away. It is better to internalize
the critiques that are resonating from both within
and outside WTO walls, than to continue ignoring
them for the sake of “efficiency”
and liberalization for itself.
During a year where the UN itself has been challenged
by the world’s biggest superpower, the role
and responsibility of major powers is being questioned
worldwide. The Cancun collapse is another big
signal that it is time for introspection about
the world order and the role that international
institutions must play to guard against the abuse
of power of a few.
The WTO is due to reconvene Senior Officials
in three months to “move towards a successful
and timely conclusion of the negotiations.”
It would be wise for the WTO to learn from this
ministerial and focus more on the quality of the
work that gets done in the next year rather than
eagerly push for the completion of the talks.
It is conceivable that the political statement
developing countries made in Cancun will elicit
a backlash from the superpowers. It is also possible
that in the next months, we will see a stronger
attempt by both the US and the EC to “punish”
or “teach a lesson” to countries that
have stood together. It is up to the WTO to ensure
that this type of behavior is exposed and understood
and members are allowed to make decisions without
For the WTO, it’s a matter of survival.
It has already struck out twice. It may not survive
the third time.