Scramble for fresh options on WTO talks

Geneva, July 28:

Top negotiators prepared to turn to fresh proposals today in a bid to nail a new global trade free trade pact despite growing discord and warnings that the painstaking negotiations could unravel at the last minute.

Squabbles among emerging economies threatened to shatter fragile gains in the quest for an agreement, as top negotiators slogged on into a second week of talks. Delegates said much remained unresolved after a meeting late yesterday that sought to cement a tentative breakthrough on farming and industrial products.

US Trade Representative Susan Schwab accused emerging economies of delaying an agreement. “We had a path on Friday for a successful outcome. It wasn’t perfect, but it was delicately balanced and had strong endorsement,” she told reporters after talks. “Unfortunately a few emerging markets want to re-balance it in favour of one or another issue,” she said.

As if to prove her point, key African and Caribbean banana producers also threatened yesterday to torpedo any deal if the European Union and Latin American states went ahead with a plan to cut EU banana import tariffs. “We will block the negotiations if our latest counter-proposal is not accepted,” Cameroon’s Trade Minister Luc Magloire Mbarga Atangana, spokesman for the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) trade grouping, said.

Ministers from over 35 key trading nations were due to consult all 153 members of the World Trade Organization at a full meeting today.

WTO’s chief negotiators on agriculture and industrial goods — respectively ambassadors Crawford Falconer of New Zealand, and Don Stephenson of Canada — were also set to issue new texts that would hopefully serve as the basis for any final agreement, delegates said.

New Zealand’s Trade Minister Phil Goff said Sunday that there was “no great animosity” in the talks but conceded that many differences remain.

Optimism had grown after a perceived breakthrough on Friday but as negotiators began picking through the finer details today, a split opened up among emerging nations, underlining the vast differences in their interests.

India stuck to its hard line of protecting its small-scale farmers, claiming that it had rallied 100 countries to its cause, but other developing economies said they opposed India’s stance on the issue.

Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath told reporters that “100 countries” had signed a paper backing India’s concerns on the so-called special safeguard mechanism (SSM) which would allow developing countries to raise farm tariffs if imports surge. But an African diplomat said: “Who are these 100 countries? They (India) are thriving on a pack of lies.” Other developing countries which oppose India’s stance include Latin American economies such as Paraguay and Uruguay, much of whose farm exports go to developing states.

Meanwhile, Asian export giant China annoyed other developing countries as it insisted on protecting its rice, cotton and sugar producers, another diplomat said. “China is becoming a major problem. It is going back on a lot of its promises,” said the diplomat on condition of anonymity, adding that China said it would not lower its tariffs on these three products.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell sid after today’s meeting that SSMs and cotton were among the hot issues going into Monday’s talks.