You can write next weekend’s news story now. ”The G8 yesterday threw its weight behind a breakthrough in the Doha round of trade talks, saying that rapid progress in coming weeks was essential if the negotiations were not to break down”.
It will sound good, but unfortunately the same story could have been (and was) written after the G8 summit last year in St Petersburg and the one the year before in Gleneagles, Scotland, and each time the summit signally failed to produce a great leap forward.
It could be different this time, but it seems unlikely that trade, or the interminable struggle to get G8 governments to make aid commitments that actually mean anything, will overshadow the break-out of Cold War 2.0 as the defining theme of this year’s summit.
Some chatter from within the talks, at least from the European side, suggests that substantive progress in the so-called “Doha round” of trade talks may be made at a meeting of the ”Group of Four” negotiating partners in Doha – the EU, US, Brazil and India – in the week beginning June 18. But though India and Brazil will be invited to side sessions at the G8, as they have before, it is not clear whether enough of the detail for a nascent deal is in place that a political push from heads of government will be particularly useful at this stage.
Twice bitten, thrice shy. In Gleneagles in 2005, President George W. Bush responded to an uncharacteristically impassioned plea from the normally placid Supachai Panitchpakdi, then the director-general of the World Trade Organisation, who said that the so-called “Doha round” of trade talks were in danger of collapse. According to people present, Mr Bush banged the table and said: ”Supachai’s right. We’ve got to get a deal”. That very day, eight hundred miles away in Geneva, the negotiators of the G8 countries, among the rest of the WTO’s membership, brought the Doha round to a complete standstill by refusing to make even basic concessions.
A year later at St Petersburg, Mr Bush gave a strong signal that the US was prepared to offer a bigger cut in farm subsidies, and G8 officials fanned out briefing excitedly that a breakthrough was imminent. A week later, the Doha round collapsed in public acrimony and transatlantic finger-pointing as the US and EU all but accused each other of having negotiated in bad faith.
The G8 seems unlikely to play a decisive role this time either. There are many moving parts in the talks, and particularly in the agricultural negotiations that have proved the most intractable. The ability of heads of government to grasp and negotiate over concepts like the tariff-rate quota formula for sensitive products or product-specific caps in the agricultural blue box remains unproven.
Recently, Tony Blair, British prime minister, said that the next few weeks would be make-or-break time for the round. They will certainly be make-or-break for Mr Blair’s chance to be around during a big leap forward, as he leaves office at the end of June. But like the G8 as a whole, Mr Blair too has form in the area of proclaiming crisis and promising action. Just after the talks hit a brick wall in July last year, he claimed that there was one last chance for Doha in the following few weeks and that he and President George W. Bush would push for it in the first half of August. No discernible push was evident, and nor was there any sign of the talks restarting until January this year.