Discussions on major regional trade agreements have overshadowed WTO activity in recent month with the Doha Round of comprehensive trade negotiations shunted aside in favor of an early harvest of just a few provisions. Negotiators are racing the clock to complete a mini-package of trade concessions for the WTO Ministerial meeting on December 3-6 in Bali, Indonesia. The package continues to shrink and is in danger of stalling out completely.

The original plan was to develop a package with three pillars of trade concessions covering trade facilitation, agriculture and development, but the size of the package has been reduced as objections were raised to delivering a package as originally conceived. The concern now is whether the package is large enough to be acceptable to key participants.

The most progress has occurred on the development component of the Bali package. Agreement has been achieved on the text for preferential rules of origin for least-developed countries (LDCs), a waiver to provide preferential market access for service suppliers from LDCs, and a mechanism to monitor how special and differential treatment is being applied in specific WTO agreements.

In the agriculture component, there is a statement on export competition to continue to reduce export subsidies, a proposal on the administration of tariff-rate quotas aimed at promoting trade flows and a food security proposal by a group of 33 developing countries led by India. They are trying to develop a peace clause that would exempt from WTO challenge certain public stockholding programs for commodities purchased at above market prices by developing countries for food security purposes. This is a priority for the G-33 group of nations. The potential to dump accumulated stockpiles on export markets has become a key issue.

In the trade facilitation segment the issues include pre-shipment inspections and customs cooperation. Some developing countries had circulated a draft proposal to make their commitments conditional on the provision of technical assistance and capacity building. It would allow developing countries to effectively opt out of their commitments if this support was not provided. The EU and New Zealand have spoken out strongly against this proposal. The leaders of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and three regional development banks have committed to developing countries that they can provide the technical assistance required to implement the trade facilitation agreement.

The U.S. position on the Bali package has been complicated by a letter from 31 agricultural and agribusiness groups in opposition to the peace clause for stockholding programs for developing countries. The peace clause was not mentioned by name, but Inside U.S. Trade reported that opposition to it was the intent of the letter. The letter said, A Bali agreement that relaxes current disciplines for those (developing) countries, even on a temporary basis, would represent a big step in the wrong direction and would set a damaging precedent for future talks.

The negotiators are working against WTO internal administrative timelines. The WTO General Council has to approve whatever is negotiated. Its meeting was originally scheduled for November 5-6, but has been delayed. The Council is required to announce its meetings ten days in advance. The deadline for the Council sending relevant documents for the ministerial meeting to WTO members’ capitals is also 10 days prior to the ministerial meeting. Allowing a few days for document preparation would require a council meeting about November 20 with an announcement of the date of the meeting about November 10.

This mini-package suffers from two critical flaws. It has become so small that many countries can walk away from it without losing much in trade policy. Trade facilitation becomes less appealing to developed countries if most developing countries can opt out. Since countries are not gaining much they are not willing to give-up much from their agendas.

The second flaw is that the developing countries continue to treat the talks as a one-way street where they are always receiving a benefit while developed country are on the giving side of the ledger. That helped to sink the Doha Round and is making the mini-package harder to manage. The key to economic development through trade is to move toward freer trade fast enough to generate additional economic growth, but slow enough that public policy can aid those most displaced by trade with market transition programs. Some countries are negotiating like continued protectionism is an acceptable endgame.

The Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, has tried his best to have the mini-package completed before he leaves Geneva for Bali. That looks close to impossible now. To get resolution on a few more issues, there will likely need to be some trade-offs in Bali. The chairs of the negotiating groups on the three pillars were supposed to have already provided an update on the progress of the talks. The lack of news may mean that negotiators are coming closer to agreement or moving further apart.

This adventure with the mini-package shows why the Doha Round is collecting dust while TTP, TTIP and a host of bilateral agreements are moving along. Negotiations on these agreements are tough even when all sides at the table want to be there and are willing to make critical trade-offs. If participants thought of these talks as a one-way street, they would be as dead as Doha. That does not mean trade policy officials should give up on the WTO. All of these other trade agreements in one way or another is based on the WTO agreement, as they must be.

A recent budget proposal by Director-General Azevedo to shift resources to the dispute settlement panels and the Appellate Body indicates the continued importance of the WTO rules-based system. But the WTO has to solve underlying trade policy issues through negotiations, not just adjudicate disputes. The WTO negotiations process should be changed to allow governments as willing buyers and sellers to come to the negotiating table to solve problems, while the just say no group arranges flights to someplace else.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (http://www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.