WTO talks still sluggish as April deadline nears

Geneva, March 27:

Trading nations are struggling to settle their differences as they edge closer to an April deadline for a deal on cutting customs duties which is at the core of World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks.

Senior diplomats were downbeat after weeklong technical discussions at the WTO’s base did little to bridge the gaps between the 149 governments in the global body. Don Stephenson, the Canadian trade ambassador who is steering WTO negotiations on industrial goods, said that he was reminded of the film ‘Groundhog Day,’ in which the lead character is condemned to relive the same day over and over again.

Crawford Falconer of New Zealand, the diplomat leading farm trade talks, said that they had not ‘advanced materially.’ Falconer’s gloomy progress report came despite some movement on the vexed issue of food aid, which critics say is misused by rich countries - particularly the US - to offload agricultural goods in the developing world, undercutting poor farmers. WTO members launched their Doha Round of trade talks in 2001, with the aim of cutting subsidies, customs duties and other barriers to trade and of using commerce to boost the economies of developing countries. The round was originally meant to end in 2004, but governments missed that deadline because of persistent bust-ups. Trade negotiators kick-started the talks in the summer of 2004, and made further progress at the WTO’s conference in Hong Kong last December.

In Hong Kong, they set a target of the end of April for what are known in WTO jargon as ‘full modalities’ - formulas and other guidelines for reducing trade barriers, which would eventually form part of a formal treaty at the end of the round.

However, enduring differences are holding up efforts to meet the April goal. Developing countries are continuing to push for more access for their farm goods in the markets of rich countries, while the latter are keeping up the pressure on poorer nations for cuts in customs duties.