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SWITZERLAND: WTO Still Not Ready for New Round

by Gustavo CapdevilaInter Press Service
December 21st, 2000

One year after the failed World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference, the hostile climate established in the US city of Seattle with respect to new negotiations to broaden global economic liberalisation persists.

Industrialised countries encourage a new round of talks while developing nations condition their participation on overcoming the imbalances caused by the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations - which created the WTO - and on establishing an agenda that attends to their particular interests.

WTO director general Mike Moore acknowledges that only ''modest progress'' was made this year towards laying the groundwork for convening a new round of liberalisation dialogue.

Despite the scant advances, Moore maintains that there is now a certain amount of flexibility in the world's capitals that did not exist six - or even three - months ago.

But the climate at the WTO headquarters in Geneva as the year closes is quite different from the moderately optimistic scenario the organisation's chief described.

Most developing countries, and some industrialised nations, consider that the issue of a new round of talks has now been marked by the defeat of the most important negotiations held in 2000, those involving the application of the Uruguay Round agreements.

The WTO dedicated 800 hours of consultations this year to the question of implementation, which consolidate the problems poor nations face when it comes to applying the trade accords approved in Marrakesh in 1994.

The matter involves aspirations that are dear to the interests of developing countries, such as opening markets for textile exports, anti-dumping measures and special or differentiated treatment for these nations.

But on Dec 15, as the negotiations drew to a close, the agreement put on the table only marginally touched on the issues demanded by the nations of the developing South.

Delegates from developing countries viewed the outcome of the prolonged talks with disappointment. A Brazilian negotiator charged that the accord was ''nearly non-existent'' and the president of the WTO General Council, Kare Bryn, of Norway, himself recognised that its achievements were quite limited.

The negotiators from the developing South consulted by IPS agree that the WTO's floundering on the matter of implementation has turned into a determining factor in the potential for a new round of global trade talks.

The implementation question will remain on the discussion table in 2001 for the special sessions of the General Council and for numerous informal consultations. The progress of those talks will reflect the readiness of the WTO to set up new global negotiations.

Throughout this year, the driving force behind the idea of a new round of trade talks was the European Union (EU), which introduced slight changes in its discourse by proposing that the dialogue take into account the needs of developing nations.

The Europeans have in interest in broad debate on numerous trade issues that would allow them to balance the uncomfortable situation they face in negotiating agricultural trade and, to a lesser extent, services.

Since January 2000, delegates to the WTO have been discussing the deepening of liberalisation in the agriculture and service sectors, as part of the negotiations mandated under the 1994 Marrakesh treaty.

The WTO has criticised the EU, Switzerland, Japan and other countries for charging high tariffs on agricultural imports coming from developing and industrialised nations alike, and for heavily subsidising their own agricultural exports and their inefficient producers.

In order to maintain this protectionist regimen, or to introduce only slight modifications, the Europeans need a new round that allows them to grant concessions in other trade areas in exchange for maintaining their agricultural policies.

For the United States, the major power in the global trade system, the matter of the new round is apparently less pressing, as Washington is focusing on negotiating financial services and the information technology industry.

Under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, the United States has insisted on introducing some non-trade questions, such as labour rights and environmental protection, into the WTO talks.

But the upcoming government of George W. Bush is likely to mean that Washington will exert less pressure on those issues, according to negotiators in Geneva.

The possibilities of the new round of trade negotiations are also subject to other political variables, such as the presidential and parliamentary elections in France, the expansion of the European Union and the admission of China into the WTO fold.

Convening the talks may be decided at the WTO's fourth ministerial conference, which is to meet towards the end of 2001. The General Council is to determine the dates of the conference and to choose a host country during its sessions in early January.

Moore, a New Zealander who ends his term as WTO leader in August 2002, has said he expects to convene the new round of world trade negotiations during his turn at organisation's helm.





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