I have a short piece in Bridges Africa on the debate about transparency in trade negotiations. Here's an excerpt:
... we should expect transparency to a greater extent than it currently exists, but it should be transparency of a different kind than trade critics are demanding. In this regard, the trade negotiation process should be broken down into three stages: (1) development of a government negotiating position; (2) the negotiations themselves; and (3) domestic ratification of the completed negotiating text. Transparency should be emphasised at the beginning and end of the process; the middle needs to maintain some secrecy.
At the beginning stage, governments must get adequate input in developing a national negotiating position. It is crucial to cast a wide net in seeking out the views of interested parties. This process must be open to all.
However, governments need to have a bit of flexibility in finalising a negotiating position based on that input, and in conducting the negotiations. The input should be wide open, but the output should be less so. The negotiating position should not be subject to too much scrutiny at this stage. Once the position has been developed, trading partners should not be given too much information on areas of weakness and dissension.
Finally, the crucial point for transparency should be the end of the process. At the end, governments cannot expect to present a completed package to be rubber-stamped. There must be a convincing explanation of the merits of the compromise that was achieved.
The last thing anyone needs or wants is people like me dissecting the draft texts in the middle of a negotiation! It seems to me that if draft texts are publicized, and governments are forced to open their position up to scrutiny during the process, they won't be able to negotiate as effectively.
My concern with transparency is not the draft texts, but with the negotiating positions that are developed prior to the negotiations and the way governments market the agreements afterwards. Governments sometimes take positions that do not have much public support, and later sell the agreements in ways that aren't very convincing. I may be stretching "transparency" beyond how it is normally used, but I think some improvements can be made at both of these stages.
In response to this piece, someone pointed out to me that governments tend to consult with certain interest groups during the negotiating process, so there is transparency of sorts, but only for the select few. I think that's a good point, and it's sort of a carry over from point 1, which is that governments are listening to particular interest groups too much in developing their positions, rather than taking a more balanced view.
All of this comes with the caveat that I've never been a trade negotiator, so any of you with actual experience in these matters should feel free to weigh in.