Trading nations were turning their attention to the needs of poor countries in WTO talks yesterday, a day after acknowledging they face a watered-down ministerial conference next month.
Brazil and India were expected to hammer home the message that rich fellow WTO members must keep the interests of developing countries at the core of negotiations to liberalize global commerce.
Members of the 148-nation WTO are meeting this week as they struggle to keep four-year-old negotiations on track as their Dec. 13-18 Hong Kong conference looms with crucial issues still unresolved.
The conference is meant to put together a framework deal to lower global trade barriers, a crucial stage in the WTO's Doha Round negotiations, which were launched in 2001 with the aim of boosting living standards in developing countries.
`The real test'
"The real test of this round is whether those with one dollar a day move up, or whether those with 5,000 dollars a day move up," Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said on Tuesday.
Nath, other senior developing country trade officials and advocacy groups regularly charge that this main plank of the Doha Round is going forgotten, although their rich nation counterparts reject this.
Developing countries, which accuse rich nations of using subsidies and tariffs to skew the global farm trade against them, have been suspicious of cuts offered by the US and the EU, saying they lack real bite.
Despite plans to start drafting a text for Hong Kong by the middle of this month, negotiators are far from putting anything on paper.
As a result, WTO members meeting on Tuesday in Geneva said they would need to shift the target for Hong Kong, doing less than originally planned there and then possibly holding another conference around March.
Members originally intended to complete the round by last year, but later postponed the target to next year after repeatedly failing to overcome disputes.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told the Geneva meeting that he will not give in to pressure from the US and other agricultural exporting nations to go further in opening up the EU's markets to farm products.
Geoff Raby, Australia's deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, yesterday told the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney that there was little hope of an agreement unless European countries cut agricultural trade barriers.
The EU won't cut agricultural tariffs to free up world trade because it lacks the political will to take on wealthy farmers, Raby said.
Raby warned of an acrimonious meeting similar to a "train smash" when WTO trade ministers meet in Hong Kong next month.
Such a confrontational summit -- involving "finger-pointing and acrimony" -- could actually spark progress by prompting a shift of political will, Raby said.
But he also warned such an approach could be counterproductive as it could take a long time to repair damaged relations.
"While still not giving up, as the days slip by we'll have to think about whether we want a train smash in Hong Kong or not," he said.
Raby also strongly criticized Switzerland, Norway and Japan, branding them "intransigent" in negotiations and attacking their defense of protectionist policies as an "obscenity."
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