Bridging Gap at WTO; North-South Split Centers Hong Kong Trade Summit

Article excerpt

Byline: John Zarocostas, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

GENEVA - The big challenge for top officials from 149 countries attending the World Trade Organization minis- terial conference, which opens tomor- row in Hong Kong, is how to bridge the North-South divide, particularly over agriculture, to advance the troubled global Doha, Qatar, talks.

Before the summit, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said that one thing the meeting will not change is the deadline for bringing the Doha round to a successful conclusion by the end of 2006.

WTO member countries know that failure at the Hong Kong talks "would totally ruin any prospect for the negotiations to be finished in 2006," Mr. Lamy told reporters.

There are concerns in WTO diplomatic circles that the U.S. Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which runs out in the middle of 2007, might not be renewed because of the increased bipartisan protectionist sentiment fanned by the ballooning trade deficit with China.

Under TPA, the Congress grants the U.S. president full authority to negotiate trade pacts that, upon completion, legislators can accept or reject with an up-or-down vote.

The narrow passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in July was seen as evidence of the changed mood among lawmakers on trade matters.

Asked whether an agreement can be reached by the end of 2006, Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister and coordinator of the Group of 20 - a trade bloc of developing nations that includes China and India in the WTO - cautioned: "You know, it all depends on the change of attitude in relation to a number of sectors, especially in agriculture."

Thus the urgency to hammer out a WTO deal that would help lower barriers to trade in goods and services worth $11 trillion a year.

Mr. Lamy, a former European Union trade commissioner, reckons that the talks begun at Doha in November 2001 have achieved 55 percent of the objectives. He hopes the Hong Kong talks can help narrow the gap toward the 66 percent target he set in September.

Faster agreement eyed

Continued gridlock among the major powers, however, has diminished the prospects of agreement on lowering market barriers to agriculture and industrial goods. Now, the objective at the Hong Kong talks is to inject political momentum by sketching, at least, the broad terms for pushing ahead early next year on arriving at the agreed parameters for a final accord.

The major trading powers abandoned last month - largely because of the inability of the European Union to budge further on agriculture - the goal of agreeing at Hong Kong on modalities, and thus curtailed their expectations.

The potential deal-breakers, such as an agreement on a deadline to scrap agricultural export subsidies, are expected to be faced in the spring.

Mr. Amorim said in an interview that between this summit and perhaps another Hong Kong ministerial meeting in March, "We still have time, but the question is: Will there be movement? If there is no movement between now and March, then it will be the same."

Farm-trade obstacles

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who is under pressure from member states such as France that are reluctant to yield on farm-trade issues, insists that the bloc will not budge on farm trade until it sees movement from major developing countries on industrial tariffs and trade in services. …