The 19th round of Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) began this week in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Although this round just started yesterday, it is evident that there are many differences between this round and previous rounds.
First, the meeting started with an overlapping TPP ministerial meeting where the Trade Ministers of the various countries met for two days to (presumably) discuss the TPP, efforts moving forward, and outstanding or controversial issues. It has been reported that not all countries’ trade ministers were able to attend, and I have heard that Australia, Chile and Peru’s trade ministers are not here (but that a deputy or other person has attended instead). These meetings, like the rest of the TPP, have been secretive. A large number of press, nearly all member of the Japanese media, were camped out in the lobby of the negotiating venue yesterday, eagerly awaiting the emergence of any trade minister from behind the closed off areas. Any time a trade minister walked out of the room yesterday, they were instantly bombarded by cameras and press but refused to comment even when asked very open questions such as “Would you like to say anything about the TPP?”
The logistics of this round have been much more difficult and the venue seems more inaccessible than previous rounds. There is a feeling that this venue is a bit isolated. Although stakeholders are allowed in the lobby of the International Convention Centre (ICC) — I note that there was one prior round, the December 2012 round in Auckland, New Zealand where stakeholders were prohibited even from the lobby or common areas of the convention center, so perhaps we should be thankful not to be locked out this time — the venue itself is quite far from the hotels, shops, or restaurants. This has made it difficult to meet for lunch with the negotiators as there are no restaurants in walking distance from the ICC. Ordinarily, stakeholders are able to make appointments to meet negotiators over breakfast, lunch or dinner. This time, however, while there is some food catered to the venue that food (as well as the area where it is being served) is reserved for negotiators only and stakeholders are not allowed to even purchase the food. I learned that there is a cafe here, but was closed when I tried to get food yesterday.
Lunch and dinner meetings have become more complicated, as well, given the near isolation of the negotiation venue in relation to the rest of the city. There does not appear to be many hotels that are close to each other and negotiators are scattered in hotels far and wide across the city. Taxis are quite expensive in Brunei (a literally 5 minute taxi ride from the airport to my hotel was $20 BND) and also difficult to find. Some stakeholders have reported paying $25 BND (approximately $20 USD) from their hotel to the negotiating venue, costing $40USD round trip each day. It is therefore difficult to find a convenient meeting spot and find the time to meet when the hotels are not close to the venue. Meeting after the negotiating day is done may also be difficult for some delegations because while they have their own shuttle buses to transport them from the venue to their hotels, they may get left behind if they stay too long after the day supposedly ends. From the stakeholder perspective, it makes meetings more difficult and I can only imagine that this situation is not particularly convenient for the negotiators as they meet bilaterally or for delegation meetings (as many negotiators even within the same delegation are not located within the same hotel). With regard to the IP negotiators, for example, out of the eleven countries I know that there are at least five hotels that the delegations are staying at, none of which are walkable or convenient to each other. They may well be spread across even more hotels, as well, that I am not aware of. Hosting side events or luncheons, something that stakeholders have done at many previous rounds, is obviously made more difficult. The closest possible venue to host such a side event is close to 30 minutes away by walking, making it basically impossible to have the event and reasonably expect the negotiators to come.
With regard to the stakeholder engagement day, there are also substantial changes. Initially, we were told that there would be no tables and no presentations, a huge change from any of the previous rounds. At the last minute, and with just two days of notice, we were told that we could register to make presentations. However, the presentations are limited to 7 minutes each, less than half of the 15 minutes we have been traditionally allotted at the most recent TPP rounds, and quite a bit less than the 20 minutes allotted at some early rounds. It is obviously difficult to give a presentation when only allotted a 7 minute speaking slot.
The location of the stakeholder engagement day is at the Empire Hotel, about 30 km away and according to google maps a 35 minute drive from the ICC negotiating venue. It is quite far from many of the hotels that negotiators are staying at, and some countries have indicated that they do not know how they will get to the stakeholder presentations because they are so far away. Some hotels do have private transportation that can be used for a fee, but at least one hotel has said that they do not transit to the Empire Hotel. Not only do they have to get to the Empire Hotel by the start of the stakeholder day (which begins at 8:30 am), but they must ensure their ability to return to the ICC for negotiations afterward. I asked one of the organizers whether they would be arranging for buses or transportation to and from the Empire Hotel and was told that they were not. I then asked again, clarifying that I was inquiring only about transportation for the negotiators and not for stakeholders, and was again told that no transportation arrangements were being made to/from the Empire Hotel. It is therefore up to the negotiators to ensure that they can get to and from the stakeholder venue, located 35 minutes away by car.
Everyone seems to be waiting for direction and answers from the trade ministers as to what will be happening going forward, when the next meetings may be for outstanding chapters, whether this is indeed the last full round, and what will happen at the APEC meeting in October.
I will update again after the stakeholder engagement day which will take place on Tuesday, August 27.