Trade diplomats returned to the negotiating table for “practical and business-like” talks about the compromises needed to clinch a new global free trade accord this year.
New Zealand Ambassador Crawford Falconer, who chairs the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) agriculture negotiations, said he was encouraged by the no-nonsense tone that dominated the group’s first meeting after a summer break.
“They are all in a mood to roll their sleeves up and get to work,” he told journalists at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters.
Arguments over the size of needed cuts to farming subsidies and tariffs, especially in rich nations such as the United States and France, are among the toughest challenges in the way of a WTO deal on agriculture, industrial goods and services.
The Doha Round, named after the Qatari capital where negotiations were launched in November 2001, were first meant to wrap up by the end of 2004. The talks have struggled to overcome many countries’ resistance to open their farm and manufacturing sectors to more competition.
Four key trading powers—the European Union, the United States, Brazil and India—failed in June to agree on the basic contours of a deal on agriculture and industrial goods, casting doubt on whether the full 151-country membership would be able to reach the consensus needed for an accord.
‘ALIVE AND WELL’
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the Doha Round was “alive and well,” telling reporters in Rio de Janeiro: “I’m convinced that the talks are going to be concluded and in a successful way.”
And leaders of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum were expected to call for an outline WTO deal to be completed by the end of the year.
A gloomier note was struck on the eve of the renewed talks by France, where farmers have strong political clout and whose approval has to be achieved before the 27-nation EU as a whole can accept any accord.
French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde told a meeting near Paris that the gap between developed and developing countries in the negotiations meant an agreement in the near future was unlikely.
Falconer accepted that if there were no progress in the agriculture negotiations—which will now break up into bilateral and small-group informal meetings—by mid-October, the drive for a Doha deal would be in jeopardy.
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has repeatedly urged countries to wrap up the talks by the end of this year to avoid having talks run into the US presidential election year, when Washington is expected to have little flexibility to negotiate.
Talks on industrial goods, another hotly contested area of the Doha negotiations, are due to resume later this month. (Reuters)