Doha Round talks are overseen by the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), whose chair is the WTO’s director-general, currently Roberto Azevêdo. The negotiations are being held in five working groups and in other existing bodies of the WTO. Selected topics under negotiation are discussed below in five groups: market access, development issues, WTO rules, trade facilitation and other issues.
Before the Doha ministerial, negotiations had already been under way on trade in agriculture and trade in services. These ongoing negotiations had been required under the last round of multilateral trade negotiations (the Uruguay Round, 1986–1994). However, some countries, including the United States, wanted to expand the agriculture and services talks to allow trade-offs and thus achieve greater trade liberalization.
The first WTO ministerial conference, which was held in Singapore in 1996, established permanent working groups on four issues: transparency in government procurement, trade facilitation (customs issues), trade and investment, and trade and competition. These became known as the Singapore issues. These issues were pushed at successive ministerials by the European Union, Japan and Korea, and opposed by most developing countries. Since no agreement was reached, the developed nations pushed that any new trade negotiations must include the mentioned issues.
The negotiations were intended to start at the ministerial conference of 1999 in Seattle, and be called the Millennium Round but, due to several different events including protest activity outside the conference (the so-called "Battle of Seattle"), the negotiations were never started. Due to the failure of the Millennium Round, it was decided that negotiations would not start again until the next ministerial conference in 2001 in Doha, Qatar.
Just months before the Doha ministerial, the United States had been attacked by terrorists on September 11th, 2001. Some government officials called for greater political cohesion and saw the trade negotiations as a means toward that end. Some officials thought that a new round of multilateral trade negotiations could help a world economy weakened by recession and terrorism-related uncertainty. According to the WTO, the year 2001 showed "...the lowest growth in output in more than two decades," and world trade contracted that year.
The Doha round officially began in November 2001, committing all countries to negotiations opening agricultural and manufacturing markets, as well as trade-in-services (GATS) negotiations and expanded intellectual property regulation (TRIPS). The intent of the round, according to its proponents, was to make trade rules fairer for developing countries. However, by 2008, critics were charging that the round would expand a system of trade rules that were bad for development and interfered excessively with countries' domestic "policy space".
The 2001 ministerial declaration established an official deadline for concluding negotiations for the Doha round at January 1, 2005.
The 2003 Cancún talks—intended to forge concrete agreement on the Doha round objectives—collapsed after four days during which the members could not agree on a framework to continue negotiations. Low key talks continued since the ministerial meeting in Doha but progress was almost non-existent. This meeting was intended to create a framework for further negotiations.
The Cancún ministerial collapsed for several reasons. First, differences over the Singapore issues seemed incapable of resolution. The EU had retreated on few of its demands, but several developing countries refused any consideration of these issues at all. Second, it was questioned whether some countries had come to Cancún with a serious intention to negotiate. In the view of some observers, a few countries showed no flexibility in their positions and only repeated their demands rather than talk about trade-offs. Third, the wide difference between developing and developed countries across virtually all topics was a major obstacle. The US–EU agricultural proposal and that of the G20 developing nations, for example, show strikingly different approaches to special and differential treatment. Fourth, there was some criticism of procedure. Some claimed the agenda was too complicated. Also, Cancún ministerial chairman, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, was faulted for ending the meeting when he did, instead of trying to move the talks into areas where some progress could have been made.
The collapse seemed like a victory for the developing countries. The failure to advance the round resulted in a serious loss of momentum and brought into question whether the 1 January 2005 deadline would be met. The North-South divide was most prominent on issues of agriculture. Developed countries’ farm subsidies (both the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and the US government agro-subsidies) became a major sticking point. The developing countries were seen as finally having the confidence to reject a deal that they viewed as unfavorable. This is reflected by the new trade bloc of developing and industrialized nations: the G20. Since its creation, the G20 has had fluctuating membership, but is spearheaded by the G4 (the People's Republic of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa). While the G20 presumes to negotiate on behalf of all of the developing world, many of the poorest nations continue to have little influence over the emerging WTO proposals. In dispute resolution mechanism of the WTO regime, the collapse of the Doha Round talks at Cancun in September 2003 has been attributed to Subsidies in agriculture and agricultural domestic support policies of developed nations
The aftermath of Cancún was one of standstill and stocktaking. Negotiations were suspended for the remainder of 2003. Starting in early 2004, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick pushed for the resumption of negotiations by offering a proposal that would focus on market access, including an elimination of agricultural export subsidies. He also said that the Singapore issues could progress by negotiating on trade facilitation, considering further action on government procurement, and possibly dropping investment and competition. This intervention was credited at the time with reviving interest in the negotiations, and negotiations resumed in March 2004.
In the months leading up to the talks in Geneva, the EU accepted the elimination of agricultural export subsidies “by date certain.” The Singapore issues were moved off the Doha agenda. Compromise was also achieved over the negotiation of the Singapore issues as the EU and others decided. Developing countries too played an active part in negotiations this year, first by India and Brazil negotiating directly with the developed countries (as the so-called “non-party of five”) on agriculture, and second by working toward acceptance of trade facilitation as a subject for negotiation.
With these issues pushed aside, the negotiators in Geneva were able to concentrate on moving forward with the Doha Round. After intense negotiations in late July 2004, WTO members reached what has become known as the Framework Agreement(sometimes called the July Package), which provides broad guidelines for completing the Doha round negotiations. The agreement contains a 4-page declaration, with four annexes (A–D) covering agriculture, non-agricultural market access, services, and trade facilitation, respectively. In addition, the agreement acknowledges the activities of other negotiating groups (such as those on rules, dispute settlement, and intellectual property) and exhorts them to fulfill their Doha round negotiating objectives. The agreement also abandoned the 1 January 2005 deadline for the negotiations and set December 2005 as the date for the 6th ministerial to be held in Hong Kong.
Trade negotiators wanted to make tangible progress before the December 2005 WTO meeting in Hong Kong, and held a session of negotiations in Paris in May 2005.
Paris talks were hanging over a few issues: France protested moves to cut subsidies to farmers, while the US, Australia, the EU, Brazil and India failed to agree on issues relating to chicken, beef and rice. Most of the sticking points were small technical issues, making trade negotiators fear that agreement on large politically risky issues will be substantially harder.
Hong Kong, 2005
The Sixth WTO Ministerial Conference took place in Hong Kong, 13 to 18 December 2005. Although a flurry of negotiations took place in the fall of 2005, WTO director-general Pascal Lamy announced in November 2005 that a comprehensive agreement on modalities would not be forthcoming in Hong Kong, and that the talks would “take stock” of the negotiations and would try to reach agreements in negotiating sectors where convergence was reported.
Trade ministers representing most of the world's governments reached a deal that sets a deadline for eliminating subsidies of agricultural exports by 2013. The final declaration from the talks, which resolved several issues that have stood in the way of a global trade agreement, also requires industrialized countries to open their markets to goods from the world's poorest nations, a goal of the United Nations for many years. The declaration gave fresh impetus for negotiators to try to finish a comprehensive set of global free trade rules by the end of 2006. Director-general Pascal Lamy said, "I now believe it is possible, which I did not a month ago."
The conference pushed back the expected completion of the round until the end of 2006.
The round had been planned for conclusion in December 2005—after two more ministerial conferences had produced a final draft declaration. The WTO pushed back its self-imposed deadline to slightly precede the expiration of the US President's Congressional Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority. Any declaration of the WTO must be ratified by the Congress to take effect in the United States. Trade Promotion Authority prevents Congress from amending the draft. It expired on 30 June 2007, and congressional leaders decided not to renew this authority for President George W Bush.
The July 2006 talks in Geneva failed to reach an agreement about reducing farming subsidies and lowering import taxes, and negotiations took months to resume. A successful outcome of the Doha round became increasingly unlikely, because the broad trade authority granted under the Trade Act of 2002 to President George W. Bush was due to expire in 2007. Any trade pact would then have to be approved by the Congress with the possibility of amendments, which would hinder the US negotiators and decrease the willingness of other countries to participate. Hong Kong offered to mediate the collapsed trade liberalisation talks. Director-general of Trade and Industry, Raymond Young, says the territory, which hosted the last round of Doha negotiations, has a "moral high-ground" on free trade that allows it to play the role of "honest broker".
In June 2007, negotiations within the Doha round broke down at a conference in Potsdam, as a major impasse occurred between the US, the EU, India and Brazil. The main disagreement was over opening up agricultural and industrial markets in various countries and how to cut rich nation farm subsidies.
On 21 July 2008, negotiations started again at the WTO's HQ in Geneva on the Doha round but stalled after nine days of negotiations over the refusal to compromise over the special safeguard mechanism. "Developing country members receive special and differential treatment with respect to other members' safeguard measures, in the form of a de minimis import volume exemption. As users of safeguards, developing country members receive special and differential treatment with respect to applying their own such measures, with regard to permitted duration of extensions, and with respect to re-application of measures.
Negotiations had continued since the last conference in June 2007. Director-general Pascal Lamy said before the start of the conference that the odds of success were over 50%. Around 40 ministers attended the negotiations, which were only expected to last five days but instead lasted nine days. Kamal Nath, India's Commerce Minister, was absent from the first few days of the conference due to a vote of confidence being conducted in India's Parliament. On the second day of the conference, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab announced that the US would cap its farm subsidies at $15 billion a year, from $18.2 billion in 2006. The proposal was on the condition that countries such as Brazil and India drop their objections to various aspects of the round. The US and the EU also offered an increase in the number of temporary work visas for professional workers. After one week of negotiations, many considered agreement to be 'within reach'. However, there were disagreements on issues including special protection for Chinese and Indian farmers and African and Caribbean banana imports to the EU. India and China's hard stance regarding tariffs and subsidies was severely criticized by the United States. In response, India's Commerce Minister said "I'm not risking the livelihood of millions of farmers."
The negotiations collapsed on 29 July over issues of agricultural trade between the United States, India, and China. In particular, there was insoluble disagreement between India and the United States over the special safeguard mechanism (SSM), a measure designed to protect poor farmers by allowing countries to impose a special tariff on certain agricultural goods in the event of an
import surge or price fall.
Pascal Lamy said, "Members have simply not been able to bridge their differences." He also said that out of a to-do list of 20 topics, 18 had seen positions converge but the gaps could not narrow on the 19th—the special safeguard mechanism for developing countries. However, the United States, China and India could not agree on the threshold that would allow the mechanism to be used, with the United States arguing that the threshold had been set too low. The European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson characterized the collapse as a "collective failure". On a more optimistic note, India's Commerce Minister, Kamal Nath, said "I would only urge the director-general to treat this [failure of talks] as a pause, not a breakdown, to keep on the table what is there."
Several countries blamed each other for the breakdown of the negotiations. The United States and some European Union members blamed India for the failure of the talks. India claimed that its position (i.e. that the US was sacrificing the world's poor for US/European commercial interests) was supported by over 100 countries. Brazil, one of the founding members of the G-20, broke away from the position held by India. Then-European Commissioner for Trade Peter Mandelson said that India and China should not be blamed for the failure of the Doha round. In his view, the agriculture talks had been harmed by the five-year program of agricultural subsidies recently passed by the U.S. Congress, which he said was "one of the most reactionary farm bills in the history of the U.S.".
On 19 December 2015, a WTO meeting in the Kenyan Capital led to an agreement for developed countries to end export subsidies immediately and developing countries to follow by the end of 2018.