Cancún deadlock: September 2003


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This briefing document explains current agricultural issues raised before and in the current negotiations. It has been prepared by the Information and Media Relations Division of the WTO Secretariat to help public understanding about the agriculture negotiations. It is not an official record of the negotiations.

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Preparations for Cancún 

The preparations in Geneva for the 11-14 September 2003 Cancún Ministerial Conference brought agriculture and the other Doha Agenda issues together, in meetings and consultations of the General Council and other bodies. Some of these were informal. Some were outside the WTO, including the unofficial “mini-ministerial” meetings that various governments hosted on their own initiative for groups of around 30 ministers.

Suddenly, and for the first time, members began to move away from their entrenched starting positions and towards some middle ground. Some of the steps were big enough to be genuine compromises between significantly different positions, but not enough to satisfy all members. Big gaps narrowed, but consensus remained elusive. The first attempt at a compromise by members was when the European Union and United States negotiated a “joint text”. This was partly made possible after the EU completed its internal discussions about reforming its agricultural policy. At a mini-ministerial conference in Montreal in July, other WTO members also urged the two major economic powers to show leadership.

The US and EU chose to work on a “framework” of key issues, rather than the entire “modalities”. This had the advantage of focusing on a smaller number of major points, which would be more manageable for ministers in the few days of the Cancún conference. The compromise draft was circulated on 1  August as a restricted unofficial document (number JOB(03)/157). Even as a “framework”, it contained a number of gaps. For much of the paper, the US and EU deliberately avoided including numbers, such as percentages or coefficients for tariff reductions. They also left open the question of special treatment for developing countries, saying they ran out of time and in any case it would be more appropriate for the developing countries to make their own proposals.

Within days, six alternatives were circulated by various groups of members. While they said they were unhappy with some parts of the US-EU draft, they all followed the “framework” structure. Of these alternatives, the draft that received the most attention came from a new coalition of about 20 developing countries — the “G-20” (paper JOB(03)/162, later re-circulated unrestricted as a ministerial conference document, WT/MIN(03)/W/6 and subsequent additions). Other drafts came from: four Central American countries; Japan; a European-East Asian grouping including Switzerland and Rep.of Korea; Norway; and Kenya (see Cancún ‘framework’ proposals). Most of these papers cover all parts of the framework. A few concentrate more on particular aspects, for example Kenya’s focus on special treatment for developing countries.

Comments on all of these draft “frameworks” led to an annex, still following the same structure, in the draft ministerial declaration submitted to the Cancún conference by General Council chairperson Carlos Pérez del Castillo (the “Pérez del Castillo” text) — he did so under his own authority since there was no consensus on submitting this or any other draft.


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Stalemate at the Ministerial Conference 

Further discussions in Cancún — coordinated by Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo Yong-Bon — plus five more papers mainly commenting on selected parts of the Pérez del Castillo draft, led to a revised annex in the new draft declaration compiled by the conference chairperson, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, and circulated on 13 September (the “Derbez text”).

Various members still had problems with the new draft. But because of deadlock on the four “Singapore issues” (investment, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation), there were no detailed negotiations on this text before the meeting ended (see pages on the Cancún Ministerial Conference).

Consultations in Geneva and around the world after Cancún confirmed members’ desire to build on the work done before and during the ministerial conference. As 2004 began, the favoured approach seemed to be to tackle the “frameworks” first, and then to complete the “modalities”.

For six months, from the Cancún Ministerial Conference in September 2003 until March 2004 there were no negotiating “special sessions” of the Agriculture Committee. Nor were there negotiations on all the other the topics. (Officially, they were temporarily “discontinued”, but not “suspended” since discussions on these subjects continued in other forums.) During that period, heads of delegations in Geneva, and ministers and officials around the world, discussed how to proceed with the Doha Development Agenda. Naturally agriculture was also part of those discussions. Also during that period, chairperson Stuart Harbinson announced that he would not seek to be reappointed. Officially the terms of all the negotiations’ chairs were up for review or renewal at Cancún, and since 2002 Mr Harbinson had also been head of the WTO director-general’s office.


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