Peter Mandelson Still Wants to Date Us, He Was Just Washing His Hair

The Cairns Group is a group of 18 major agricultural exporting nations. This week they held their 20th anniversary meeting in Cairns, Australia (the site of their first meeting, hence the name of the group). Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, they were able to make little headway in moving the struggling Doha round of trade talks forward. (The special importance to agriculture in the Doha talks was presumed to give the Cairns Group a strong voice.)

There are a few reasons for this:

First, the Cairns Group has lost some of its gravitas now that the G-20 (a developing country block of WTO members that was formed and at least partly responsible for the disastrous end to the 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun) has entered the fray. The G-20 (which has some overlap in membership with the Cairns Group) is less inclined toward liberalization in general, unless it is liberalization in other countries.

Second, and more importantly, the EU’s trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, refused to attend the Cairns meetings because of a “prior commitment.” I’ve used that excuse to get out of an unappetizing social engagement, too, Mr. Mandelson, and I’m almost always telling a white lie. In this case, however, the refusal to attend is not so “white.”

Mr. Mandelson’s job, and inclination if we are to believe his press statements, is to do all he can to revive these talks. Mandelson is visiting the United States for talks with U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab, agriculture secretary Mike Johanns, and congressional leaders next week so he’s not completely disengaged. But sending Smithers EU Ambassador to the WTO, Carlos Trojan, to Cairns in his place was not appropriate.

The upshot of having a conspicuously empty seat in Cairns: yet more sniping. The EU (through Ambassador Trojan and comments from his Brussels master) and the United States both dismissed the Australian compromise of lowering EU tariffs by a further 5 percent and U.S. farm support by an extra $5 billion. Then, both members said that the other needs to move first. 

The best, possibly only, chance for a Doha result is between November (i.e., post mid-term elections in the United States) and March, when the U.S. administration’s fast-track authority deadline really starts to pinch. A small window indeed.