WTO trade talks to limp on

Cairns, September 24:

Major players in World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks on a global trade deal failed to find a breakthrough formula at a meeting in Australia last week but agreed they all needed to make concessions.

The 18-nation Cairns Group, whose members account for 25 per cent of the world’s agricultural exports, held a specially-extended meeting in the northern Australian resort town in a desperate bid to get negotiations back on track.

The free-trade grouping hosted officials from the United States, European Union (EU), Japan and the WTO for the first time in a bid to revive talks acrimoniously suspended in July.

While there was no dramatic watershed to immediately end the WTO’s so-called Doha Round of negotiations begun in 2001, global trading superpowers agreed there was enough incremental progress to keep hopes of a deal alive.

“At some point, one would hope that if the key players come to the table with flexibility, we’ll find the convergence that has eluded us,” US Trade Representative Susan Schwab said.

The Cairns Group meeting called for talks to resume by November and said the EU and US must improve their offers on cuts to farm aid if they wanted a comprehensive deal signed by the end of next year.

WTO director general Pascal Lamy advised negotiators to keep building on small advances made since the July suspension, which he said gave a “time out” for all involved to draw breath.

While leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair have recommended a high-profile summit to give the Doha talks a “decisive push”, EU, US and WTO representatives all said a low-key approach would be more fruitful.

“I would not advise going back to the talks without enough assurances through bilateral contacts, quiet diplomacy and compromise ... so that when, or if, we officially resume, it’s on the basis that there has been enough pre-cooking (for success),” Lamy said.

The EU’s WTO ambassador Carlo Trojan said a small advance was made at a meeting of the G20 grouping of developing nations in Rio de Janeiro this month when all participants agreed the WTO negotiations had to resume.

Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile said there was another slight change of position in Cairns, where major players such as the US, EU and Japan all said they were prepared to make concessions on trade barriers. He said the main players were keenly watching what each other were doing.

“None of the major players are prepared to move first. This is the significant challenge, how do we get them all to move,” Vaile said.

Schwab agreed a low-key approach was more likely to succeed than formally re-opening the suspended WTO talks, which would involve deadlines and pressure for an immediate breakthrough.

“It is the quiet conversations, it is the ‘what if?’ conversations, it is reaching out, it is building coalitions of the open-minded — not coalitions of the like-minded — to generate ideas and new suggestions and proposals,” she said. However Trojan said participants should remain realistic about their aims.