Tue, May 02, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Poorest farmers get no harvest from WTO as EU and US bicker

By Heather Stewart  /  THE GUARDIAN , GENEVA

There was a flowering of metaphors at the lakeside headquarters of the WTO in Geneva last week. Sunday was meant to be the latest milestone on the road to recasting the rules of the global marketplace.

Instead, it has become another missed deadline, marking the failure of yet another attempt to kick-start the Doha round of trade talks -- and the players involved were forced to turn to poetic language to cheer themselves up.

"This is a dance," said Segfredo Serrano, from the Philippines. "We have to dance, and we have to have a partner. We come from countries with good dancers, but our toes are being stepped on by very clumsy partners."

Or, as trade analyst Christophe Bellman put it, using a phrase he picked up from African negotiators to describe the impact of the talks on the poorest countries, "when the elephants are fighting, the grass suffers. When the elephants are making love, the grass still suffers."

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy had been pushing hard for negotiators to sketch the outlines of a deal ("modalities" in Geneva-speak) by Sunday, so that trade ministers could come together and discuss the details. But with developing countries still concerned that the elephants are trampling the grass, he was forced to accede to their demands and admit that the deadline would be missed.

While some were insisting that a few more weeks of hard graft in the Swiss city could roll the talks to their next stage, some observers have already started to question whether the round is about to "run into the sand" (an especially popular metaphor), and even whether the future of the WTO itself is at stake.

US President George W. Bush will have to reapply to Congress for his right to negotiate trade deals next summer and many analysts believe he is unlikely to get it. Without that authority, any deal would almost certainly be chucked out -- so unless the details can be pinned down before then, the whole trade round is in jeopardy.

Europe and the US' unwillingness to dismantle their lavish farm subsidies is often seen as the crux of the fraught negotiations, but the game at the WTO involves 150 players, arrayed in a dizzying constellation of overlapping groups. They are all hoping to protect their various interests and prevent signing away the livelihoods of their citizens, as many developing countries felt they had after the Uruguay round of trade talks which ended in 1994.

Poorer countries were promised that this time, in the Doha round (named after the Qatari capital where the talks were launched in 2001), levelling the playing field for the poor would be at the heart of the negotiations. Four-and-a-half years on, many fear that they are being sidelined, as Europe and the US spar with each other.

Promises

The poorest -- the least-developed countries -- have been promised they will not be forced to lower their own tariffs, and offered a share of an "aid for trade" package, which will help to pay for infrastructure.

But analysts say that means many rich countries feel they have ticked the "development" box, and can go on pushing their commercial interests in other areas, demanding better access to the industrial markets of some of the stronger developing countries, such as Brazil and India.

India, which has a thriving information-technology and services sector but millions of poor rural farmers, is a leading member of one of the key coalitions which rejected a ministerial meeting this weekend.

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