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Cancun Round Collapses

New Group of 23 Nations Emerges as Force to be Reckoned With
by Dan JaffeeSpecial to CorpWatch
September 15th, 2003

World Leaders Shut their Ears to the Poor, Protestors Say´┐ŻAP

Cancun, Mexico - WTO negotiations collapsed here yesterday amid deep divisions between the United States, European Union and Japan on one side and the Group of 23 (G-23), led by Brazil, South Africa, India and China, on the other. The two sides, already at odds on agricultural issues, deadlocked over proposals for WTO rules on investment, competition, trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement.

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G-23: Strength in Unity

The split between developed nations and many countries in the global South is not new. It was one of the factors that led to the failure in the Seattle round of talks four years ago. However, a potent new force challenging the US and European Union has emerged inside the WTO. The G-23 represents 85% of the world's farmers and more than half the global population.

"This is the first time we have experienced a situation where, by combining our technical expertise, we can sit as equals at the table," Alec Erwin, South Africa's trade minister told the (UK) Guardian. "This is a change in the quality of negotiations between developing and developed countries."

Meanwhile US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick blamed the G-23 for the breakdown.

"Whether developed or developing, there were 'can do' and 'can't do' countries here," Zoellick told reporters. "The rhetoric of the 'won't do' over whelmed the concerted efforts of the 'can do.' 'Won't do' led to the impasse," he added in an in an analogy almost as convoluted as Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.

Corporate lobbyists and also had a significant presence here in Cancun, and according to observers, they played a major role in forming and reinforcing the bargaining positions of the US and the European Union. Pascal Kerneis, Managing Director of the European Services Forum, which represents all European service industries such as tourism, water and energy was unsympathetic to the G-23 demands.

"This is world trade, this is globalization. This is the game of the rules," Kerneis told CorpWatch. "Either you close your market, you protect your market, you have your own consumers, and you're happy with that, or you want to play with the others."

Members of the US trade delegation have been predicting the G-23's demise throughout the week, noting that they are united by what they oppose, not the trade alternatives they support. Not surprisingly, G-23 members tend to see the conflict differently. They hope that the collapse of the talks will put them in a stronger position when they resume at the WTO headquarters in Geneva in the indefinite future.

Protestors, Civil Society Groups Claim Victory

Meanwhile, security at the Cancun Convention Center where negotiators met was extremely tight throughout the week. The direct route to Cancun's hotel zone from the city center was closed since Tuesday, forcing workers as well as some press and delegates to take a 25-mile detour. Despite the heavy police and military presence, over 100 activists were able to reach the convention center on Friday, and blocked traffic for over an hour. Others hung large anti-WTO banners from a nearby construction crane and a pedestrian bridge.

Many of the activists and their allies in non-governmental groups see the collapse of the Cancun round as a victory.

"The most favorable outcome for the developing world is a derailed ministerial, in which there are no new initiatives at liberalization that are agreed upon [] including agriculture and subsidies," explained Walden Bello, director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South. "No agreement is better than a bad agreement," he added.

Increasingly frustrated at the WTO negotiating table, many here expect Washington will change its focus to bilateral or regional trade talks, such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. A summit on the FTAA is set for Miami in November. Yet as the 5th WTO ministerial meeting ends in collapse, there is a tangible sense here that the newfound strength of a large bloc of Southern nations has shifted the balance of power between rich and poor countries, at least for now.

Listen to the audio version of this story on Free Speech Radio News

Dan Jaffee is a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News