International trade officials sought to strike a positive tone at the end of a two-day meeting Sunday at Rio de Janeiro aimed at restarting negotiations for the stalled World Trade Organization’s Doha Round.
But aside from widespread agreement over the need to achieve a global free trade agreement, few could point to concrete signs of progress in the trade talks which stalled in July – largely over developing nations’ demands for greater access to rich countries’ agricultural markets.
"What happened in July was a serious accident," said Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organization. "I think what happened here, since yesterday, is that we have been able to move the ‘serious accident’ sign post to another sign post which is ‘WTO negotiations in repair.’"
Lamy said that all the parties present in Rio were in favor of continuing talks, but that he was not yet sure all the elements were in place for them to go forward. "By mid-March of next year we have to know if there a deal in the making or not," he said.
The Doha Round has been billed as the "development round" of the WTO talks and supporters said the talks success would lift millions of people out of poverty.
The talks, which were not trade negotiations, were billed as a High Level Meeting of the Group of 20 developing nations, but they represented the first time nearly all the parties involved have come together since the Doha talks were suspended.
The presence of U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and Japanese Agriculture Minister Shoichi Nakagawa served to highlight the desire of the developed countries to reach an agreement.
"The Doha Round is in serious trouble there’s no question, on the other hand there is evidence among developed and developing countries a like that it is worth the effort – the extra effort to resuscitate the talks," Schwab said.
"Clearly the United States and President Bush is committed to finding a successful outcome for this round if there is one to be found."
Although Schwab denied the talks hinged on the Nov. 7 vote, many here blame the U.S. for the talks’ failure and believe that little progress is possible before the U.S. congressional elections in November.
"The elections will not change the United States position but the fact that the elections are over will help," said Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, who headed the conference.
At the July meeting, Washington offer to reduce the limit for farm subsidies to $22.5 billion from it’s current limit of $48 billion, but other nations balked at this offer saying it did not represent a real reduction pointing out that last year’s subsidies only totaled $20 billion.
G-20 ministers meet again at the end of October or beginning of November in Geneva.
Developing nations are demanding greater market access for their agricultural products while developed nations complain of barriers in emerging markets for their goods and services.
The G-20 issued a statement Saturday indicating developing nations were unlikely to back off their demands that developed nations do away with subsidies and tariff barriers for their farm products.
"Most of the world’s poor make their living out of agriculture. Their livelihood and standards of living are seriously jeopardized by subsidies and market-access barriers prevailing in international agricultural trade," the group said in the statement.
Powerful farm lobbies in the U.S., Europe and Japan, however, strongly oppose an end to subsidies, a move they fear would leave them unable to compete with the flood of cheap imports.
The entire process is rapidly running out of time because Bush’s authority to "fast track" the trade deal – enabling U.S. envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments – runs out in mid-2007.
Days after the G-20 meeting, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will host the heads of states of India and South Africa in Brasilia to discuss strengthening economic links between those countries and South America’s Mercosur bloc – made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.
The G-20 was formed in 2003 with Brazil as one of its leading member nations. The other members are Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, China, Cuba, Egypt, the Philippines, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, South Africa, Thailand, Tanzania, Uruguay, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
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