Farm trade dispute threatens overall WTO Doha deal

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Negotiators aiming for a global trade deal failed to resolve disagreements on a key technical issue in farm talks on Friday, calling into question the timing of a proposed ministerial meeting to clinch the accord.

Delaying that meeting could have a knock-on effect that would imperil the whole deal, as top officials such as EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson have said this year may be the last chance to conclude the Doha trade round. Negotiators fear a trade deal, which could boost confidence in a world economy hit by financial crisis and soaring food prices, could fall off the agenda once a new US president with new priorities replaces George W. Bush in 2009.

Diplomats at the World Trade Organization will spend at least another week working on a proposal to shield sensitive food products from the full force of tariff cuts, New Zealand’s WTO ambassador Crawford Falconer told reporters. Falconer, who chairs the agriculture talks at the WTO said, that would also give negotiators more time to work on rules for trade in tropical products and the preferential treatment of European Union imports from former European colonies. “Their view was overwhelmingly they need more time, not because they think they have much time... but because they are indeed making progress they need a bit more time to make sure, that progress works,” he said of the negotiations on tropical products and preferences.

That extra time will delay a whole interlinked process of talks, consultations and meetings that, under an informal WTO timetable penciled in amid growing optimism about a deal, was to culminate in a ministerial meeting in the week of May 19. Now that meeting, to take the big political decisions in an outline deal, risks becoming the latest in a long list of missed deadlines since the WTO’s Doha round was launched in late 2001 to open up world trade and boost the world economy. That process will begin with a revised negotiating text from Falconer, summarizing what rich and poor countries, importers and exporters, have agreed on in the past nine months.

 
NO TEXT YET
But negotiators made it clear they did not want him to produce the new text until they had sorted out issues involving tropical products and preferences, where progress is being made, and sensitive products, where there are problems, he said. “The sensitive guys know they’ve got a problem internally, they know that a number of the members have a problem and those members all said... that they will not be satisfied unless progress is made on that sensitives discussion... and that there should be no revised text until that has happened,” he said. Falconer, who has set a provisional round of talks for April 30, said a revised text was unlikely before the week of May 5.

Whether that would allow enough time to prepare for the ministers’ meeting in the week of May 19 is unclear. In New Delhi, Indian Trade Minister Kamal Nath said he was optimistic the negotiators would be able to cover the “last mile” to an accord. There has been good progress and momentum has built up in the last two months, he told a conference. There is little room for slippage as hotels in Geneva will fill up soon afterwards for the start of the Euro 2008 soccer contest on June 7. A ministerial meeting by the summer is considered vital to allow officials enough time to fill out the details of a deal.

Negotiators need to make a breakthrough in agriculture, industrial goods and services in the coming weeks in order to conclude the Doha round in 2008, the top US trade official, Susan Schwab, said on Thursday. The row about sensitive products turns on how to calculate the low-tariff or even duty-free import quotas that WTO members will offer in those products to compensate for exempting those products in general from tariff cuts. For food exporters such as Uruguay, these quotas offer the biggest potential gains from the Doha round. Members also differ about which products could be designated as sensitive. (Reuters)

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