‘The most opaque round of talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement to date ended in Ottawa yesterday. The odds of President Obama achieving his goal of a meaningful document by the APEC leaders’ summit in November hangs in the balance’, according to Professor Jane Kelsey who has been in Ottawa to observe the talks.
The twelve countries have apparently begun brainstorming the November options.
‘At their most ambitious, the leaders could announce a political deal, but provide no text’, Professor Kelsey speculated. A similar ‘agreement in principle’ was announced for the Canada EU agreement known as CETA in October 2013. ‘There is still no final treaty, which makes it impossible to assess the real impacts.’
Everything hinges on a breakthrough in the US-Japan talks on agriculture, which resume in Washington on Monday. It is likely that bilateral discussions among the TPPA’s five main agriculture players will continue when their trade ministers convene for the G20 meeting in Sydney on 19 July.
‘While everyone is blaming Japan for holding out, the US is also insisting it will only make bilateral deals on agriculture, so it can limit what it offers to different countries, notably New Zealand on dairy’.
With no breakthrough on agriculture, the leaders could do little more than update their inflated ambitions from three years ago at APEC in Honolulu, Professor Kelsey observed.
‘Whether they downgrade those expectations to fit the reality that the US, Japan and Canada are not going to deliver comprehensive market access will largely depend on whether New Zealand is prepared to admit that publicly’, she said. ‘Australia has already accepted a TPPA-lite deal, and Canada would happily follow Japan’s lead.’
Even if the US and Japan strike a deal, it is unclear whether that would be announced before America’s November mid-term elections, or even shared with the other parties.
If they do not agree, or refuse to share the outcome, the rest of the talks may remain stalled. Professor Kelsey says that ‘New Zealand has apparently refused to make political trade-offs in other areas, such as intellectual property, without a result on dairy. That is Groser’s only real bargaining chip, but it is unclear how long he can maintain that position’.
Some of those issues remain far from resolved. The Ottawa round turned the heat up in areas seen to be lagging, notably the novel text on state-owned enterprises. Yet negotiators on other controversial issues, such as environment and the annex on ‘transparency in healthcare technology’ that targets Pharmac, have not met for several rounds - presumably because they lack a political mandate.
There is a report of further ‘informal’ rounds of negotiations in September and October, including a meeting of ministers. Even if these are confirmed, the details of when and where are likely to remain a state secret to shield them from even the current minimal level of scrutiny.
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