- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

GENEVA (Agence France-Presse) — World Trade Organization talks threatened to unravel as rich nations and developing countries warned yesterday they could block consensus at a key ministerial meeting in December and thereby scuttle hopes yet again for a global trade deal.

A key negotiator said critical talks on trade in agriculture were now on “life support” amid reports of wide gaps separating key players such as the United States, the European Union, Brazil and Australia.

Big food importers such as Japan and Switzerland and developing countries in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific bloc bluntly put the WTO on notice that their interests had to be addressed if a long-awaited trade liberalization deal is to be realized.

Negotiators are struggling to draft the outlines of a multilateral agreement reducing trade barriers ahead of a WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong Dec. 13-18.

The current deadlock centers on trade in agricultural produce, seen as crucial to the success of the current Doha round of negotiations, a process launched with great fanfare in the Qatari capital in 2001 and that has foundered ever since.

“The process is on life support right now,” Crawford Falconer, the New Zealand diplomat leading the farm talks, acknowledged yesterday.

“It’s probably another 10 days before the doctor decides to switch it off or not. We’ve got to see whether we can revive the patient,” he told reporters.

“We’re already in overtime,” he added. “We need to make a superhuman effort to get everything done.”

The talks here this week have seen bitter splits between the European Union, the United States and powerful developing countries including Brazil and India over which of them should make the most concessions.

The European Union has come under heavy fire, accused of failing to propose big enough cuts in its customs duties on agricultural goods in return for reductions in farm subsidies by Washington.

Further muddying the waters has been a public spat between the EU’s top negotiator, Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, and France, which accuses him of being too generous in his concessions and has sought unsuccessfully to restrict his negotiating mandate.

Hanging over the meetings in Geneva are painful memories of the WTO’s two previous spectacular failures, in Cancun in 2003 and Seattle in 1999, when high-level conferences collapsed in discord, dealing major blows to the goal of universal free trade.

“We are risking another Cancun or another Seattle if we don’t move quickly,” U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said this week, making sure to add that it was the European Union that had to do more to reduce barriers to agricultural trade.

More WTO members waded into the fray yesterday.

The 79 countries in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group said they “will not be able to join the consensus” in Hong Kong if their priorities were sidelined.

The ACP countries, which have preferential trade deals with the 25-nation EU, are worried that the trend of negotiations so far might turn out to be damaging to their interests.

A group of countries resisting big tariff cuts also warned that it too could sink the Hong Kong meeting.

“We don’t want to be negative, but if things happen which are so far away from the simplest reality, then we will have to say no,” said Swiss trade ambassador Luzius Wasescha, speaking for the G-10 lobby, which also includes Japan, Norway and South Korea.

“There’s an absolute consensus within the G-10 that we will have to go down this very difficult path if the others are not reasonable,” he told reporters.

The G-10 countries import most of their food but are also demanding the right to continue using steep tariffs to protect what they say are key domestic farm sectors — such as the Japanese rice industry.

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