WTO should focus on sectoral accords, say six ex-USTRs
By Brian Beary in Washington | Tuesday 10 April 2012
As the EU and its partners reflect on their next step following the failure of the Doha Round of trade liberalisation talks, six former US trade representatives have shared their vision for how to move beyond the long-standing impasse. Several of them called for an updating and expanding of existing sectoral accords at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), notably the 1996 Information Technology Agreement (ITA). Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, on 6 April, Charlene Barshefsky, USTR under President Bill Clinton, also flagged up as items for action in the WTO existing financial services agreements, and future new agreements in areas like environmental goods and services, fisheries and biotechnology. In addition, she recommended that the EU and US conclude bilateral investment treaties with China that enhance the protection of their companies’ intellectual property rights. This was “a pivotal issue,” she said, given that EU and US companies were “increasingly under pressure to transfer technology” to China as a condition of accessing Chinese markets.
SUPPORT FOR EU-US FTA
On the EU-US bilateral front, strong support was voiced for concluding an EU-US free trade agreement (FTA). Carla Hills, USTR under President George W. Bush, suggested such a bilateral accord, which the EU and US administrations are considering starting talks on, might be able to reduce agricultural subsidies on both sides of the Atlantic. With that in mind, she urged the EU and US to use the US-South Korea FTA, which entered into force in March 2012, as a model. Clayton Yeutter, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s USTR, insisted the EU and US “can handle” agriculture in a bilateral deal as their policies had grown closer in recent years. That said, Yeutter noted that in the upcoming negotiations on the US Farm Bill - the current bill expires in September 2012 - there were indications that Congress may actually reduce the least trade-distorting forms of subsidies, namely direct payments.
Some harsh words were reserved for US President Barack Obama, with several of the USTRs feeling he has not shown enough interest in trade. William Brock, another Reagan-era USTR, said “we have yet to see a trade policy” from Obama, adding “we sit back and let the negatives take control of the debate”. Susan Schwab, USTR for President George W. Bush, said “leadership counts” and noted that US public support for trade liberalisation tends to plummet in presidential campaigns when the candidates say negative things about trade. While WTO talks are stalled for now, Schwab felt that “all roads should ultimately be leading to a reinvigoration of the multilateral system”. Barshefsky said that while it was normal for Obama to focus on domestic policy in his first years, “it would have been wise for his administration to better empower his cabinet” on trade.