Davos huddle on world trade talks

Davos, January 27:

Trade ministers from 23 countries and the European Union met on the final day of the Davos forum Saturday in a bid to breathe fresh life into stalled global trade negotiations.

The fate of the Doha round of World Trade Organisation talks, suspended last July, has been a key talking point at the four-day annual gathering of business and political leaders in the Swiss ski resort.

Predictions about the outcome of the ministerial meeting here have varied widely, although there has been a solid consensus on the grave consequences for the global economy if the entire Doha round is allowed to collapse.

“I think it’s a very big risk and I would call for success of these negotiations as part of a better world,”

European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet said ahead of Saturday’s huddle. During a debate about Africa on Friday, Tony Blair said he believed there was “every chance” that the talks would get underway again.

Along with pop star and activist Bono, Blair stressed that the Doha round was a vital part of development efforts, given its aim of allowing developing countries to trade their way out of poverty.

The Doha round was suspended by WTO director-general Pascal Lamy following five years of acrimonious meetings pitting the EU, the United States and developing countries against each other.

Even if Lamy were to decide to restart formal negotiations on Saturday, any final agreement would require political approval and would likely face opposition in the current climate.

In the United States, the White House is set to lose its special trade negotiating powers at the end of June, placing pressure for a WTO agreement beforehand. If the newly Democrat-dominated Congress decides not to renew the presidential “fast-track” trade powers, then any deal struck by negotiators afterwards risks being picked apart by US lawmakers.

In the European Union, the French government in particular has insisted there should be no new offer to reduce tariffs on farm products which protect the EU market from imports.

European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told the Financial Times that he saw a breakthrough in the next month, but his US counterpart, Susan Schwab, has been more circumspect.

The Doha round, launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, aims to tear down trade barriers by reducing subsidies and tariffs, but negotiators have been unable to agree on the size of the cuts.