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Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Negotiations heat up for WTO meet

TRADE The agricultural sector remains the biggest point of contention, and imminent progress on reducing barriers appears by no means a certainty


For global negotiators, it seems that every time they take a step toward a trade liberalization treaty, it moves one step further away. If they can't catch up this week, they know it will be out of reach for months or even years.

Government ministers from around the globe gather this week at the WTO in Geneva for a last-gasp attempt to agree on the framework of the treaty that they hope will give a massive boost to the world economy.

However, they face huge differences of opinion -- especially in the key area of agriculture, where rich and poor nations want different actions and exporters and importers have conflicting priorities.

"At a time when protectionist pressures lie just below the surface, when people across the world [demand change] ... the WTO must deliver," said WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi.

Negotiators are meeting privately night and day to try to reach an agreement before Saturday's deadline. Formal meetings start today.

The framework should have been completed last September at a ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, which collapsed without agreement. Negotiators then planned to do it by Christmas -- but that deadline came and went.

If they don't manage it by the end of this month, they know that the US presidential elections and government changes in other countries will leave them paralyzed until at least next year.

The framework will form the structure of continued negotiations in the current round of trade talks. Though it is only part of the process, many believe this agreement is the crucial one, and that the rest of the talks will be much smoother.

Along with Shotaro Oshima -- the Japanese ambassador who heads the WTO's ruling General Council -- Supachai on July 16 produced a 15-page proposal on the structure of a future treaty.

On the key issue of agriculture, the document sets out a system that would ensure that high import tariffs are cut by a larger percentage than are low ones -- a key demand of many agricultural exporters.

However, it also leaves room for nations to make smaller cuts on products they consider sensitive -- often, products that are important in their domestic farming industry.

The document is short on details, saying simply that the exact formula to be used "remains under negotiation." Governments have failed to agree on that, despite months of negotiation.

The proposal says all agricultural export subsidies will be eliminated by a date "to be agreed" -- a concession made by the EU, which had originally refused to accept total elimination of the payments.

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