Pessimism pervades pre-WTO summit atmosphere

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Hong kong International trade European union

Pessimism and intransigence from both Europe and the US means that
next week's vital WTO trade talks in Hong Kong will collapse in
embarrassing failure unless concessions are made fast.

EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson yesterday accused countries including the US of not pulling their weight, while American politicians have warned that support for the round could be jeopardised if the ministerial meeting focuses exclusively on the demands from a few developing countries.

It is still hoped that trade ministers will succeed in concluding negotiations on the WTO global trade agreement on agriculture and services, which would lead to the liberalisation of global food and agriculture markets.

But a meaningful settlement now looks increasingly doubtful. With talks due to begin on Tuesday, Ministers have simply been unable to resolve the underlying divisions that have existed since the Doha round of talks was launched in 2001.

This week, the EU has been under pressure from countries including Brazil and the US to agree to allow more agricultural imports and further reduce subsidies to its farmers as part of an eventual global trade deal, while Mandelson has said that the bloc was not prepared to table a new offer on farm trade.

He has also tried to turn the pressure on to the US by highlighting the generous payments made to support cotton farmers, which the US appears unwilling to give up.

The US is also unlikely to budge on another divisive issue. A group of senators issued a letter this week to US trade representative Rob Portman, demanding that he state publicly that the US will not agree to any increase in visas for skilled professionals.

They said that any failure to do so could force them to oppose any final agreement.

Such divisions, just days before the summit, have given rise to fears that Hong Kong will fail to deliver necessary reform. Already there have been complaints that the recent ministerial declaration issued earlier this month is considerably less ambitious than the stated original objectives of the meeting.

If the meeting fails to deliver, developing countries will lose out, as will the European food and drink industry. The Confederation of the EU food and drink industries (CIAA) has said that it is vital that a comprehensive set of rules in agricultural trade is negotiated, leading to a balanced and coherent agreement.

2005 was the year in which the developed world was supposed to help Make Poverty History. The Ministers from 148 countries gathering in Hong Kong next week have an opportunity to make a vital difference, but it seems increasingly likely that a golden opportunity will be missed.

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