WTO Talks Enter Crunch Week

By | April 14, 2008

Talks on a deal to open up world trade entered a critical week on Monday with negotiators at the World Trade Organization (WTO) hoping to prepare the ground for a proposed meeting of ministers next month.

With key food exporters and importers reaching a deal on how to deal with politically sensitive farm products, the way is now open for the talks to move ahead on topics like industrial goods and services [notably insurance], even with many big areas of disagreement ahead.

“The progress that’s been made in the last several months is quite considerable and it does seem there’s momentum behind the process,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told Reuters.

The WTO’s Doha round, launched in November 2001, has lurched from missed deadline to missed deadline.

But trade diplomats say that after nine months of intense negotiations a deal is now in reach to boost a world economy hit by financial crisis and soaring food prices.

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy and many trade ministers are keen to wrap up the talks this year while George W. Bush is still in the White House, before a new administration with other priorities takes office.

The vulnerability of international trade deals to U.S. politics was highlighted last week when the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives delayed indefinitely action on the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement that Bush had sent it.

Trade officials say that ministers would need to meet in May and take the big decisions on a Doha deal to allow negotiators enough time to fill in the details by the end of the year.

Those political decisions involve the size of cuts in agricultural tariffs and subsidies and in duties on industrial goods, and the major exceptions to those reductions.

This week’s rounds of meetings in Geneva should clear up some of the remaining technical issues so that ministers can focus on the big issues, they said.

On Monday negotiators are reviewing proposals on industrial goods, including the scope of waivers developing countries want to shelter their fledgling industries from full competition.

On Tuesday a final round of talks on agriculture before the revised text is produced, will take place.

And on Thursday Lamy will brief ambassadors from all of the WTO’s 151 members on the progress of the talks, next steps and proposals for the ministerial meeting. “He wants to bring everyone up to speed on how things are developing on the process front,” said Rockwell.

That will include arrangements for incorporating talks on services such as banking and telecoms into the ministerial meeting. Lamy will meet lobbyists from U.S. and other services organizations on Wednesday.

He will also brief them on talks in more specialized areas, such as rules for countries to deal with unfairly priced imports, arrangements for fishing subsidies, and discussions on protecting regional names for wines and other products.

A deal among a handful of major players in recent weeks on how to shield sensitive food products from the full impact of tariff cuts has opened the way to the latest sets of talks.

Big exporters Australia, Brazil and Canada, importers Japan and the European Union, and the United States on both sides of farm trade, agreed among themselves what a scheme for sensitive products would look like, but still have to convince some other countries of its merits.

And the farm talks still need to deal with arrangements for trade in tropical products, including preferential treatment by the EU for goods from former European colonies.

(Editing by Stephen Weeks)

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