Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Doha – ever-decreasing circles

In an entirely predictable development, yesterday the assembled foreign ministers of the EU tried and failed to present a united front for today's WTO talks in Geneva, on what is hoped to be the decisive stage of the Doha round - see previous Blog.

They managed to cobble together something of a statement "endorsing" Lamy's negotiating position, but so bland was it that leaves him with no firm instructions on which to operate.

And while France continues to be the major blockage, she has attracted the support of Italy, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Poland, all countries wedded to protectionist agricultural policies, who have lined up against Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, countries which, to a greater or lesser extent, are more disposed towards free trade.

Time will have to be made, however, for a further round of talks between the ministers of EU countries, who want to meet on Friday to discuss any deal before Lamy is allowed to close.

Under such a tight leash, he will find it difficult to make any concessions on agriculture that would need any fundamental changes to the CAP. Much, therefore, depends on how the US will react and, in particular, whether it will agree to throw its food aid programme into the ring, as being equivalent to the EU's export subsidies.

Everyone, therefore, is banking on the appearance of a new draft agreement which will be published tomorrow, following which there will be round-the-clock negotiations until the "drop-dead" deadline for agreement of midnight on Friday.

Meanwhile, pressure groups defending poor countries are displaying their unease at what appears to be a stitch-up in the making between the EU and the US. Oxfam has been particularly critical, its spokesman saying demanding that the rich countries "get their heads out of the sand and fulfil their promises", while the British-based group Action Aid has accused rich countries of "continuing to bribe, bully and threaten developing countries".

On the other hand, farmers groups from the EU, Japan and Canada are demanding that a level of protection is maintained, to allow farmers "to meet society's food security and rural concerns for sensitive products", and protection for farmers who incur high costs in order to meet society's concerns about food safety, the environment and animal welfare. They do not want their trade to be "undermined by imports which do not meet the same standards."

Whether all these disparate views can be reconciled by Friday is very much in the balance but the signs are not good. The EU's main emphasis seems to be how to blame the collapse of the talks on the US, while American negotiators will be considering the same strategy. All in all, the talks seem set to go round and round in ever decreasing circles. We all know what happens then.

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