- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Last week’s summit of trade ministers in Hong Kong did not end in disaster. That modest achievement contrasts with the trade summits of the past. From Seattle to Cancun, trade meetings have been besieged by protesters on the outside and undermined by deadlock on the inside. Since the end of the last round of talks more than 10 years ago, the failures have been glaring. Two of the last three summits collapsed. The Hong Kong meeting was notable in that it led to some progress.

At the 11th hour and under mounting global pressure, the European Union agreed that it would drop export subsidies by 2013. That date became the deadline for all World Trade Organization members to drop farm export supports, including U.S. export credits to agricultural producers. The European Union’s resistance to setting an end date for export supports had been holding up progress in the trade round. Once Europe finally gave way, the onus shifted to the United States to allow for freer and fairer trade terms for Africa’s cotton producers and for trade coming from the world’s least-developed countries.

Wealthy nations agreed to end subsidies on cotton exports next year. Also, the United States and European nations agreed to allow 97 percent of the exports from the world’s poorest nations to enter duty-free. The reason that figure is not 100 percent is due to U.S. protectionism. U.S. negotiators unfortunately fought for the right to keep barriers on imports of textiles, an industry which is neither economically nor strategically important.

The difficulties in global trade talks reflects deteriorating perceptions about the effectoffreetrade.InaUSA Today/CNN/Gallup survey conducted Dec. 9-11, 46 percent of respondents said foreign imports represent a threat to the economy, while 45 percent saw trade as an opportunity for economic growth through exported U.S. products. Five years ago, 56 percent said trade was an opportunity and 36 percent a threat.

It is a shame that the European Union failed to make more significant concessions on its farm supports and that the United States chose to continue protecting textile producers. WTO members did take a step forward in negotiations, though. Compared to past summits, that level of success is worth noting.

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