Monday, August 02, 2004

It’s still a stitch up

The 147 countries in the Doha round of WTO talks may have agreed to continue talking, but the agreement to agree to further talks has not actually brought a trade agreement that much closer.

Even the ebullient Lamy is being cautious, telling reporters at the end-of-talks press conference that the WTO faces "a huge task" to deliver a finished agreement – although he is forecasting that this could be achieved by the end of 2005.

His caution is wise, as the last minute deal to save the talks has amounted to a commitment in principle to remove protection from a whole range of products – and especially agricultural products – save a group of what are termed "sensitive products", which have not yet been defined.

The talks have thus ended with what has been slated as a "classic piece of diplomatic double-speak" - the commitment boldly to open markets being contradicted by a parallel pledge allowing countries to protect their "sensitive products", and leaving the details to be negotiated. Rather like the non-group that did the deal, therefore, this is a non-agreement.

"It is clear from the ambiguity... that important and difficult decisions have been deferred," the National Foreign Trade Council, a U.S. business lobby, said in a statement, thus pointing up the failure to agree anything substantive.

Australian farmers are rightly critical, fearing that the EU, the US and Japan "might" exploit sensitive product exemptions, and that "rich protectionist countries" would use these to continue denying access to their markets. One commentator noted ruefully, "Experience tells us that protectionist countries will use any loophole to manipulate, exploit and undermine the intent of trading rules".

Furthermore, the much vaunted commitment to reducing export subsidies is less than it seems, as the major trading blocs have been progressively reducing their reliance on this type of aid.
Nor is it only the Aussies that are unhappy. China, attending its first major WTO talks since becoming a member, complained of "empty promises", some African representatives are questioning the lack of any timetable for the reduction of subsidies, and an editorial in a major Japanese newspaper accused the delegates of "procrastination".

However, French agriculture minister Herve Gaymard, told France Info radio it was a good and balanced accord, which only goes to show that it must be a stitch up. This was effectively confirmed by French farm and anti-globalisation activist, Jose Bove, who said the agreement was "far from restoring the balance" between rich and poor countries, adding: "The game is still in the hands of the United States and the European Union."

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