France to face internal, external pressure at key WTO talks

18th July 2008, Comments 0 comments

France could find itself torn in two at critical WTO talks next week as it tries to balance national interests with its responsibilities as head of the European Union.

18 July 2008

PARIS - France could find itself torn in two at critical WTO talks next week as it tries to balance national interests with its responsibilities as head of the 27-member European Union.

"France is in a very delicate, difficult position," said a source close to the negotiations, which start Monday in Geneva under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation.

The meeting is seen as possibly a last-ditch effort by world trade ministers to salvage a floundering trade liberalisation process that got underway in the Qatari capital Doha in November 2001.

French negotiators have so far made no secret of their fear that a Doha deal leading to lower farm subsidies and agricultural import tariffs could harm French farming interests.

But as the country holding the current EU presidency France must also take account of the positions of 26 other governments, many of which are anxious for consensus.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy has already accused EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson of having "sacrificed" EU agricultural production to neo-liberal, pro-market globalisation principles without having won sufficient concessions in return.

Mandelson shot back, insisting that Sarkozy had undermined his position ahead of crucial Doha talks.

Stefan Tangermann, a trade analyst with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, said France could influence the Geneva negotiations by suggesting that the EU "may not be as flexible as some countries would have hoped".

But for Philippe Hugon, an economics professor at Nanterre University, France's margin for manoeuvre is limited, "since the EU speaks with a single voice at the WTO".

If the search for consensus is part of the EU president's role, an agreement - at least on trade in industrial goods - could be far from assured.

Industrialised nations have been pressing developing countries to make their markets more accessible to manufactured goods and services.

Sarkozy on 10 July maintained that conditions were not in place to reach a new global trade deal.

"We are unanimous in Europe, even if it is not for the same reasons, to say that in the current state of things the conditions are not right," he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"Brazil has made no effort to lower tariff barriers on industrial goods" and there "has been no effort on services and what can be said about the total closure of the Chinese market?" Sarkozy added.

Philippe Chalmin of Paris Dauphine University, argued that "for once France is right," notably as Mandelson, "determined to close the Doha cycle before the end of his mandate," has given away too much in the agriculture component of the talks without having secured comparable concessions on trade in services and industrial goods.

Chalmin in fact would like to see no agreement emerge in Geneva next week, with negotiations frozen until the arrival of a new US administration early in 2009.

He argued that the next US government would be unlikely to feel bound by commitments made by the outgoing administration.

Congress, he added, would almost certainly have no interest in tinkering with recent US farm support legislation, which has been denounced as protectionist by free-trade activists in Washington.

[AFP / Expatica]

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