Looking back on Doha

UK minister Gareth Thomas looks back on the failure of world trade talks in Geneva that he believes

After 10 days of trade talks in Geneva between ministers from countries ranging from Burkina Faso and Lesotho to the US and China, the latest attempt to get agreement in the current “Doha Development Round” of world trade talks broke up with no agreement.

The questions now ministers are beginning to think through, individually here in the UK, is when the talks can be restored and if that isn’t soon whether and how to go ahead with regional trade agreements (trade talks for example between the EU and India or the EU and groups of African and Caribbean countries).

Agreement would have provided the global economy with a much needed confidence boost, would have reformed world agriculture models and helped tackle growing protectionist sentiment. It would have delivered real benefits for the world’s poorest countries and provided a platform for new opportunities for British businesses in sectors as diverse as chemicals, machinery and financial services.

The three key areas of talks were firstly agriculture, where the considerable subsidies the EU, US and other rich countries have traditionally given to their farmers were under scrutiny, secondly industrial markets and lastly services for example financial services, insurance and professional services (legal, and the like).

We pushed hard in Geneva for a deal that was both good for development and good for the UK. We for example pressed for cuts to trade distorting farm subsidies, an ambitious reduction in particular for cuts in cotton subsidies – a key concern for some of Africa’s poorest countries; Benin, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso and for agreement on trade in bananas a source of tension between two key groups of developing countries for over ten years. We also promoted special and differential treatment for developing countries. By the end of the talks the EU had committed to lock in an 80 per cent cut in trade distorting subsidies and a 60 per cent cut in tariffs into EU markets while the US had accepted the principle of a cut of some 70 per cent of their trade distorting agricultural subsidies.

Real progress was made too on trade in industrial products such as cars, chemicals and machinery (with smaller cuts in tariffs on their goods when made in developing countries) and strong signals were sent on future trade in services like banking and accountancy.

In the end the talks broke up over the special safeguard mechanism, which allows developing countries to temporarily raise tariffs to address import surges, and prevent subsistence farmers - for example - going out of business. The principle of the rules has been accepted for a long time but agreement couldn’t be reached on how and when they could be used, despite over 60 hours of talks on this issue alone.

The challenge now is to build trust between the key negotiators to resolve this issue and restart talks which are running up against the rapidly approaching roadblock of US, Indian and European elections, with the inevitable pause as negotiators change

The sheer complexity of the talks caused by the vast differences in the perceived interests of World Trade Organisation members is one reason why these talks have taken so long and why many promote regional trade agreements as a simpler and quicker route to new business opportunities.

It is however the very multilateral nature of the organisation that gives the WTO its strength. We need a set of rules for the world economy that is fair for developing as well as developed countries, that give the smallest countries the space to be heard and listened to as well as granting new opportunities for trade between the richer countries.

We are ever closer to a deal that will substantially recast the roles within the world’s trading system. The prospect of such a deal is what kept countries like Lesotho, Burkina Faso and other developing countries through to the end of the falls.

The EU will of course be pressing ahead with bilateral trade negotiations but there is no giving up on the prospect of a deal on the DDA talks and we will over the coming months be discussing how to progress them with the many other countries in the WTO who want a deal.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times