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Report on the Panel Discussion "Parliaments and the WTO"
Geneva, 17 June 2003

The interactive panel discussion was organized by the IPU on WTO premises and held within the framework of the WTO Public Symposium "Challenges ahead on the road to Cancún". Two themes were discussed: "Growing threats to multilateralism: should parliaments be concerned?" and "Missed deadlines in the Doha Round: how can parliaments help to advance the negotiations?". The composition of the panel was as follows:
red cube Mr. Geert Versnick, MP (Belgium), coordinator of the IPU delegation to the Post-Doha Steering Committee

Special Guest
red cube Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, WTO Director-General

red cube Mr. John Dupraz, MP (Switzerland)
red cube Mr. Michel Hansenne, Member of the European Parliament
red cube Mr. Ricardo Melendez-Ortiz, Executive Director, International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development

The session was organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) for members of parliament attending the Symposium, and for government and civil society representatives interested in the ongoing parliamentary debate on the WTO.

In his opening remarks, the WTO Director-General, Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, stressed the special role that parliamentarians, as elected representatives of the people, play vis-à-vis governments and civil society, and expressed the hope that the recent increase in parliamentary activities focused on the WTO would help to bridge the gaps, lead to a better understanding of WTO issues and procedures, and eventually rally the public behind the very important issues negotiated there.

Speaking of the reasons why members of parliament should buttress the multilateral trading system, the Director-General mentioned the growing interconnection of economies around the world, the need for the trading system to be equitable and therefore rules-based, the phenomenon of competitive liberalization, the long-term adverse consequences of the deflation paradigm, and the alarming contraction trends currently observed in the world trade. In order to move forward in the negotiations, there is a need for greater political involvement, public pressure, changes in the rules and a substantial reduction in areas of confrontation. Members of parliament can be instrumental in this regard.

Some of these ideas were echoed in the ensuing debate, which focused on the threats to multilateralism and on the missed deadlines in the Doha Round. The introductory statements made by the three panelists paved the way for a fruitful interplay of ideas which reflected a particularly wide spectrum of opinions present in the room.

As a Vice-President of the Swiss Farmers' Union, Mr. Dupraz spoke of the worsening situation of farmers all over the world as a result of the unfulfilled promises of the Uruguay Round and argued for the respect of the multifunctional nature of agriculture as stipulated in the Swiss Constitution. He also advocated complementing multilateral trade agreements with bilateral arrangements - especially with neighboring countries - and suggested that, for the Doha Round to succeed, the eight negotiation subjects should be treated as a single undertaking.

For his part, Mr. Hansenne pointed out that parliaments were part of the political system and were directly implicated in the WTO process because of their legislative and oversight functions. Although the parliamentary dimension of the WTO is indispensable, the real work has always to be done at home. One of the priority tasks for parliamentarians in this regard is to become better informed about the WTO, help alleviate public misgivings about it, and promote the culture of dialogue which is at the very heart of parliamentary work. This task is all the more important in view of the unique nature of the WTO, which makes it at once very powerful due to the binding force of its decisions, and rather weak constitutionally. The WTO is overloaded with various side issues, many of which have little to do with trade per se and could be dealt with more efficiently by other international organizations. Mr. Hansenne compared the WTO to a black hole in astrophysics which sucks in all matter and even light by the sheer force of its gravitational field.

The third panelist, Mr. Melendez-Ortiz, identified two types of threats to multilateralism: those intrinsic to the system and those resulting from external factors. The former are due to the unbalanced nature of the current system and its remoteness from political controls. The latter result from unilateralism, regionalism, proliferation of bilateral agreements concluded between asymmetrical partners, and from the new globalized forms of organization of production that are not captured by the rules of the current system. In order for parliaments to perform their role as a bridge between civil society and governments effectively, it is critical that they acquire greater understanding of the design of international structures and reestablish the control that has been partly lost through the advent of the WTO, which has engendered a shift away from the policy level to the negotiations level.

The participants responded vigorously to the thought-provoking introductory statements and contributed to the debate through numerous questions and observations. Some of the comments referred to specific examples and arguments used by the panelists, whereas others introduced totally new elements. The overriding impression was that multilateralism was under threat and that parliaments should indeed be concerned with this.

Issues of trade in agricultural products proved to be particularly controversial, although the discussion showed that simplistic approaches based on the traditional developed-developing countries dichotomy were gradually giving way to an understanding that problems and contradictions were deeply rooted and could not be solved by trade rules alone. Other issues, such as access to essential medicines for poor countries lacking the capacity to manufacture such drugs themselves, met with general consent.

Some delegates argued that direct involvement of members of parliament might remedy the current stagnation in WTO negotiations and even help to solve the image problem of the WTO in the longer term. Other delegates called for a more cautious approach, stressing that the negotiations process should remain the domain of governments. All concurred, however, that it was necessary to replace relationships based on force by a fine-tuned legal mechanism.

The participants praised the Inter-Parliamentary Union and European Parliament for their initiative to hold a special parliamentary session in Cancún on the occasion of the fifth WTO Ministerial Conference. The session should become another important step in the process of setting up a meaningful parliamentary dimension of the WTO.