WTO Ministerial Conference and Ireland

The Seventh Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation in what is known as the  Doha Development Round is currently taking place in Geneva. This is the first round of re-negotiations since the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995.  Ireland is member of the WTO both as a state and as a part of the EC (The EC and not the EU is a signatory, though with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty this may change) which is a signatory to the Marrakesh Agreement. (the institutional charter of the organisation) as well as a signatory to the various agreements such as GATT, GATS (Services) and TRIPS (Intellectual Property). This Round, which is supposed to focus on the needs of Developing and Least Developed States in order to improve their basic economic standards and to realign the system to make is more favourable to them, has dragged on since 2001 and has so far failed to come to any substantial agreement.

One of the main stumbling blocks has been agriculture. Countries in the Global South together with Australia and New Zealand (known as the Cairns Group but there are also many other alignments ) have been pushing for Europe and the US to reduce their subsidies and open up their markets to agricultural products of the Global South. Europe and the US have been countering that if they open up their agricultural markets, then the Global South will be required to open up their Services markets and legislate for better intellectual property protection and enforcement.

The discussion in Ireland is usually dominated by the IFA and other farming bodies seeking to retain the Common Agricultural Policy and the protection it affords to Irish farmers at the expense of the farmers of the Global South. Though as the Rural Ireland 2025: Foresight Perspectives clearly states, Ireland’s rural economy can survive and thrive without the protection currently afforded to it and without the harm caused to farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world. ( I have written extensively about this with Anna-Louise Hinds of NUI, Galway, see Ireland and the WTO: Dancing at the crossroads (2008) 19 Irish Studies in International Affairs 169,  The results of the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference- Part I: Little  More than an agreement to agree? (2006) 13 (3) Commercial Law Practitioner 67,The results of the Hong Kong Ministerial Conference- Part II: Ireland – Ignoring Reality? (2006) 13 (4) Commercial Law Practitioner 92 – 98).

The coverage in the Irish media of these crucial talks has been patchy, though the Examiner has reported that Japanese farmers are in agreement with Irish farmers on the future of agricultural policy. These reports tend to focus, even now with the current crises, on agriculture, while the potential repercussions for the wider Irish economy, possibly far more significant, are all but ignored. This has also been the case for the Irish Government, which at previous important meetings has sent the Minister for Agriculture instead of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the natural choice for a trade conference and the practice of most other states. Though at this conference junior minister Billy Kelleher TD has gone to Geneva.

There will probably be little decided at the Conference, but it if it truly is to be a Development Round, the richer members of the WTO will have to decide if they actually are willing to take the steps that will enable Developing Countries to emerge from poverty or if they will continue to place barriers in their way.

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