Rough road ahead for global trade

Brussels, November 23

World Trade Organisation (WTO) members have made progress in recent months fleshing out a skeleton agreement for a mid-December meeting in Hong Kong but tough bargaining lies ahead if more meat is to be put on the bone, top negotiators said.

Member states were still divided on some key issues but the gulf was narrowing others, the chairmen of two important negotiating groups said. Their conclusions are to form the basis for a report WTO secretary general Pascal Lamy is to draw up by the end of the week which is supposed to sketch the current state of play of the trade talks.

WTO members are in the midst of a flurry of negotiations aimed at preparing the ground for an agreement at the Hong Kong meeting that itself would pave the way to capping the current Doha round of trade liberalisation talks. But amid deadlock on key issues such as agriculture and industrial tariffs, negotiators have recently been scaling down their ambitions for the Hong Kong meeting.

However, New Zealand diplomat Crawford Falconer, who is trying to steer farm trade talks out of their current impasse, sounded a rare note of optimism in his overview of where talks on agriculture have been and are going. “We have made — particularly since August of this year — genuine and material progress. Indeed it has come at a relatively rapid pace,” he said.

While warning that it would be a ‘grave error’ for WTO members to drag their feet now, he stressed, “there is indeed something real and important still within our grasp and we ought not to risk losing it.”

In particular, on the key issue of reducing tariffs on farm products, he said “there has been an undeniably significant convergence on the range of cuts”.

Falconer’s counterpart for negotiations on industrial goods, Stefan Johanesson of Iceland, painted a nuanced picture. “While acknowledging that progress has been made the establishment of full modalities is, at present, a difficult prospect given the lack of agreement on a number of elements,” he said.

One of the main aims of the Hong Kong summit is to agree on the ‘full modalities’, which is WTO-speak for the complex formula of terms for liberalising trade. After intense talks in recent months, Johanesson said that “there is a more common understanding of the shape of the formula that members are willing to adopt in these negotiations” although further progress was needed to clinch a deal.

“Members are far away from achieving full modialities. This is highly troubling,” he said. Key players from the US, EU, India and Brazil are expected in Brussels next week along with ministers from the G90 developing states as efforts to accelerate the trade talks builds.

S Korean rice bill

SEOUL: South Korea’s parliament on Wednesday approved a bill opening the domestic rice

market wider to imports, triggering street protests across the country and scuffles inside the National Assembly.

The vote came some three weeks before crucial WTO talks in Hong Kong, where farm trade will be a major issue.

Thousands of others were confronting police in some 100 cities and towns across the country to protest the vote, a farming union official said. — AFP

Sweet offer

BRUSSELS: The EU kicked off marathon talks on sugar sector reforms with Britain seeking to win over other reluctant member states with a sweeter offer on implementing the changes.

The EU is struggling to overcome deadlock on the reforms, which the WTO has ruled illegal following a complaint from Australia, Brazil and Thailand. In the face of resistance to the reforms from member states, the EU’s Bri-tish presidency proposed that the changes be carried out more slo-wly than originally planned. — AFP