Mar 15, 1991


GENEVA, MARCH 13 (CHAKRAVARTHI RAGHAVAN) - Uruguay Round negotiations in the Agriculture cluster group, chaired by GATT Director-General Arthur Dunkel, at their meeting here this week for technical work on domestic support in agriculture, have been basically marking time with key protagonists merely repeating their positions, according to participants in these talks.

About 35 delegations representing various interests and groupings are involved in the current cycle of consultations due to wind up on Thursday. The discussions have been focussed on a 6-page "suggested checklist of issues" put forward by the GATT secretariat and covering five areas: policy coverage, the definition of Aggregate Measurement of Support (AMS), the definition of "other commitments", relationship between commitments and inflation, and the reinforcement of GATT rules and disciplines.

Participants said that while the checklist has posed a series of questions, the major protagonists, the U.S. and EC, would themselves appear to be taking the position on several of them that the questions are "political" rather than "technical" and cannot be tackled at this stage of the programme of work.Most of the protagonists in the agriculture trade reform debate are also merely repeating their own previous positions and trying to make sure that under guise of technical work their basic positions and interests are not damaged, participants said.

By general informal understanding over the current phase of the re-started Uruguay Round negotiations, most participants appear agreed on not getting into substantive negotiations, but rather marking time in terms of solace "technical work", until the situation about the U.S. fast-track authority becomes clear.

The U.S. and Cairns Group members also are known to feel that they would be better off by not getting into substantive negotiations until the EC advances in its own internal debate over reform of its common Agriculture Policy for its budgetary reasons. But the EC is pushing for quickly finishing up the negotiations.

This debate and divide will not be resolved either until the U.S. gets the fast track authority.

President Bush has sought extension of the authority, pitching it in terms of the U.S. leadership role in the post-Gulf scenario, arguing that "at a time when world events have reconfirmed the importance of U.S. leadership in multilateral efforts, maintaining fast track is essential to our leadership in the global trading system". The Gulf war, though purportedly against Saddam Hussein, saw a general alignment of the ICs against the South, with the Arabs divided. Whether this alignment of the ICs will extend to the efforts to extend the "New World Order" to the world economy, and whether the ICs will continue to quarrel among themselves but close ranks against the South and its rising competition or independent paths is not very clear.

While it is generally expected that the Bush administration would win its "fast-track authority", there are also some uncertainties caused by a coalescing of several lobbies each of whom is against the fast-track authority for its own reason.

These include textile and clothing interests, farmers (household and, in U.S. terms, relatively small farmers), labour, environment, consumer groups and manufacturers (who would be affected by competition) as well as other interests campaigning against the U.S.-Mexico and North American free trade pact moves.

According to reports from Washington, both in the Senate and the House resolutions are being filed to disapprove of the extension. The resolution of disapproval needs to be adopted in either house only by simple majority for the request to be denied.

The disapproval resolutions have been sponsored in the Senate by Commerce Committee Chairman Senator Ernest Hollings and in the House by Congressman Byron Dorgan.

But they can be considered only if they are approved by the committees with jurisdiction - the Finance Committee in the Senate and the House Ways and Means Committee.

In terms of Congressional calendar and rules, if neither of the Committees actually report out a resolution by May 15, they cannot be brought up for a floor vote to deny the authority before June 1 deadline, stipulated by the 1988 U.S. Trade and Competitiveness Act under which extension is automatic unless either House disapproves of it by then.

The Chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee, Lloyd Bentsen and House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski have expressed themselves in favour of extension and so has the House Speaker.

An expected ploy of the administration is to manoeuvre to bottle up the disapproval resolutions in the Committee and prevent a floor vote - a ploy with which privately Senators and Congressmen might favour since it enables them not to take a stand either way and run against lobbyists and their interests

Over the next several weeks, there will be intense jockeying for positions and hearings by various Congressional committees and subcommittees, and attempts by legislators to use the opportunity to secure assurances on their pet subjects from the administration. In such a situation, one of the participants in the Uruguay Round consultations here suggested, no one would be willing to do anything but repeating themselves and little progress can be expected, despite the pressure and proddings from Dunkel to focus discussions on each of the checklist points.

However, apart from the cluster consultations, there are also "friends of the secretariat", a shadow group of even smaller number than the 30-40 delegations involved in the clusters, who are meeting and discussing things in an even more "non-transparent way". These could result in pre-cooked understandings of the majors being pushed through, several Third World participants fear.

Like the crisis scenario that was planned for Brussels, the current scenario appears to be to have "low-key-technical-no-progress" consultations on the surface and cook up results behind the scene, some of the Third World observers fear.

In getting the okay from the Trade Negotiations Committee, Dunkel had assured that the "structure" of negotiations mandated by the Punta del Este mandate would be maintained and that he would to hold "consultations" about various matters including the timetable, chairmanship of the cluster consultations, etc.

Some of these have been avoided by Dunkel himself chairing the first round of the consultations for technical work, but there are signs of uneasiness among several Third World countries if this is continued in the further stages.

Some of them are pushing for consultations and decisions on issues like structure of negotiations, stewardship (who will chair - secretariat officials, participants etc), the timetable for further work, the substantive content of negotiations, transparency and participation in the negotiations.

They want these to be settled before the next cycle of consultations, expected after the Easter holidays.