Governments seeking to breathe life into stalled agriculture talks at the World Trade Organization should aim for a framework deal by the summer that would boost negotiations, US and European Union trade officials said last week.
“We feel very strongly that 2004 shouldn’t be a wasted year,” US chief agriculture negotiator Allen Johnson told reporters as a week-long meeting at WTO headquarters in Geneva drew to a close. “The reality is that we have a window here. If we don’t get it done by August, it may be some time before we get it done at all.”
A number of key WTO countries face elections later this year -in particular the US. The makeup of the European Union Commission - the EU’s executive -also will change as 10 new countries join the 15-nation bloc.
This is likely to compound problems which have hampered talks, as the attention of the two major WTO players shifts.
Agriculture is the biggest stumbling block in WTO negotiations to complete a new binding treaty on reducing import tariffs and other barriers to free international trade among its 146 members.
When WTO members launched the current round of negotiations in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, they set themselves a Jan. 1, 2005, deadline to reach an accord.
But the chances of meeting that target have looked more doubtful after a ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, collapsed without agreement in September, mainly because of disputes over agriculture.
Poor nations are demanding massive cuts in the $1 billion a day paid by rich nations in farm subsidies. Industrialized countries, in return, want to see developing nations make cuts in import duties on agricultural products and manufactured goods, as well as accepting foreign competition in areas like communications and financial services.
“We’ve lost seven months since Cancun trying to get this process moving again,” said Johnson. “But discussions have been very businesslike. People aren’t repeating a lot of rhetoric.” (Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
“With good intentions and bright minds I think we can find some solutions here.”
At last week’s talks, negotiators have been looking at ways to come up with a basic framework of aims and objectives that would guide future negotiations.
“There is a constructive mood,” said EU negotiator Mary Minch.
“The consensus is that we should try to reach a framework agreement by the summer break,” However, “we haven’t really been talking text this week,” she added.
“We are at the beginning of re-engaging here. At the moment this is a process of people saying what’s important to them and to see what they can do to address the hopes of other trading partners. That way we can move to the middle ground.” (Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)