WTO heavyweights fight to keep talks afloat
LONDON, Nov 7 (AFP) - Heavyweight countries in the World Trade Organization were set for vital talks here on Monday to salvage a global trade-opening deal, with the top EU negotiator saying it was a "tall order" to draft an accord and warning France it had no veto over his tactics.
The talks are intended to break bitter deadlock particularly over customs duties and subsidies on farm goods. The logjam is jeopardising the chances of all 148 WTO member states approving an outline deal at their December 13-18 conference in Hong Kong.
“The overall objective is to arrive at a situation where we have, by later this week, or sometime the week after, a first blueprint for Hong Kong,” said European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.
“Achieving it this week will be a tall order, and unlikely,” he told foreign ministers from the 25-nation EU in Brussels ahead of the London talks.
When the draft emerges, he said, “it should leave only some blanks to be filled in before and at Hong Kong”.
Mandelson was scheduled to meet US trade representative Rob Portman, Indian commerce minister Kamal Nath, Brazil’s foreign minister Celso Amorim and Japanese trade minister Toshihiro Nikai late Monday afternoon at the Indian embassy for a working session and dinner.
Mandelson said he aimed to “win understanding and acceptance of our position on agriculture and the other areas” in the WTO negotiations, which include trade in industrial goods and services, such as banking.
Earlier, he had accused Brazil and the US — and Australia — of hampering progress in the WTO’s struggling, four-year-old Doha Round negotiations.
“The problem is that the round has been pushed, up until now, into an agricultural siding by very aggressive agricultural exporters, the US, Brazil, Australia, countries like this, who, in my view, have interests that don’t coincide with the interests of a vast number of developing countries for whom this round is supposed to be operating,” Mandelson told BBC Radio 4.
A key plank of the WTO’s negotiations, launched in Qatar in 2001, is to use commerce to boost developing countries.
An agreement between the trading powers is seen as crucial because they epitomise many of the diverging interests at the WTO. They are due to meet with other members at the WTO’s Geneva base on Tuesday.
Last month, the United States offered to cut its farm subsidies, provided the EU and Japan slashed their import duties on agricultural produce.
Developing countries, which accuse rich nations of using subsidies and tariffs to skew the market against them, said they were doubtful that much real spending would be cut by Washington.
However, they have turned most of their fire on the EU, saying the concessions Brussels has offered won’t provide for deep enough cuts in tariffs to give real market opportunities for developing country producers. Washington and other rich countries, including Australia, have joined that criticism of the EU.
“I expect to be pressed hard for more on agriculture market access,” said Mandelson. “This I will not give.”
The EU is in turn pushing Brazil and India to offer more on industrial goods and services.
“We have made others understand that this can now only be a comprehensive negotiation, in which we have to make progress on all fronts simultaneously and with similar levels of ambition,” Mandelson said.
Brazil, which leads the powerful G20 lobby of developing countries, has said the farm controversy must be settled first.
But the 79-nation African, Caribbean and Pacific group — which has preferential trade ties with Europe — has warned big EU tariff cuts could hurt them as big players get more access to the market.
Mandelson is also fending off internal criticism.
France, which regards agriculture as a matter of vital national interest, has accused him of overstepping his brief and vowed to oppose any deal he works out that goes too far.
Mandelson said France had a “rather defensive, rather conservative view” on farm trade but that “the French government doesn’t have a veto.”
The WTO’s conferences in Seattle in 1999 and Cancun in 2003 both failed because of persistent discord, partly over farm trade.
Subject: French news