International trade negotiations this week enter the final stretch before the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico, with the first signs of progress in the otherwise troubled agricultural talks and announcements of new mobilizations by groups opposed to the multilateral trade system.
With just one month left before the Cancun meet, negotiators from the 146 member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) appeared Monday to have emerged from nearly four years of stagnation that prevented any advances in the farm trade debate.
Coinciding with this potential turning point was a gathering over the weekend of an estimated 200,000 people on southern France's Larzac Plateau, a foretaste of what anti-globalization movements are preparing for the WTO ministerial conference, to take place in the Mexican resort city Sep. 10-14.
During what was dubbed the anti-globalization Woodstock, Jos Bov, a leader of the French farmers movement, accused his country's government and the European Union of standing in the way of public debate prior to the WTO ministerial meet.
For the first time since WTO farm trade talks began in early 2000, there were indications Monday of genuine give-and-take, as delegations expressed willingness to be flexible and to seek a balance between opposing positions, a negotiator, who requested anonymity, told IPS.
However, we are still in diapers, said the source, stressing that these new, more flexible attitudes are just a tenuous start.
The EU and the United States failed to deliver on their pledge to present a plan for jump-starting agricultural negotiations during the meeting of WTO delegation chiefs here Monday. But the debate ended with a positive balance, said the negotiator.
The two trade superpowers promised two weeks ago, during an informal meeting of ministers from 25 WTO member countries in the Canadian city of Montreal, that they would draw up a document with concrete proposals for facilitating the multilateral farm talks, creating a new dynamic.
The rest of the WTO members are anxiously awaiting an agreement between the United States and EU, which are responsible for the lion's share of subsidies that industrialized countries provide their farmers, a sum that reaches $300 billion annually.
Washington's representatives informed the delegation chiefs that serious negotiations are underway with the EU, but they have yet to produce an accord.
The European bloc, meanwhile, confirmed that the two parties are seeking a shared approach to the agricultural trade issue, which in general terms revolves around a range of interests of industrialized, farm protectionist countries, and most of the rest of the world, which wants barriers to fair farm trade removed.
Anti-globalization actvists rest under the tent of rescue workers as temperatures edged above 40 degrees celsius (104 Fahrenheit) at the Larzarc plateau, southern France, Saturday Aug. 9, 2003. 200,000 people gathered for 'Larzarc 2003' meeting, on Saturday forcing organizers to close the event to new arrivals. The three-day rally takes aim at the upcoming World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, Mexico, next month. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
These differences were reflected in one of the exchanges during Monday's sessions, when the EU pointed out that its member states and the United States together represent half of global farm trade.
The Malaysian delegation recognized the weight of the two superpowers in world agricultural markets, but added that they are also the biggest villains.
The WTO members this week begin an agenda of meetings seen as being decisive for the fate of the Cancun meeting.
Scheduled are daily negotiations on all of the issues on the agenda for the Cancun meet, convened by Carlos Prez del Castillo, chairman of the WTO General Council, the institution's highest authority when the biannual ministerial conferences are not in session.
In addition to farm trade, the negotiations involve market access for industrial goods, the pending implementation of measures beneficial to developing countries, and matters related to special and differentiated treatment that the WTO has authorized for less-developed economies.
One critical and unresolved issue that could thwart success at the Cancun conference is poor countries' access to low-cost, essential medications, such as for treating HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
And then there are the areas of interest to industrialized countries, the so-called Singapore issues--in reference to the WTO ministerial held there in 1996--which include investments, competition, transparency in government procurement, and streamlining customs regulations.
Over the next two weeks, the delegation chiefs will discuss a different item of the Cancun agenda each day. Based on those talks, Prez del Castillo will put together a draft declaration to be presented Aug. 22.
As for farm trade, the General Council chairman announced that a special session would take place Wednesday, with the hope that the EU-United States proposal will be ready.
The Australian delegation has already distanced itself from whatever comes out of the talks between the trade superpowers, with a spokesperson saying, The days of Blair House are over.
Blair House is the official guesthouse of the U.S. government in Washington. In 1992, U.S. and EU authorities met there to negotiate the framework for the agricultural agreement approved during the Uruguay Round of multilateral talks on international trade, held from 1986 to 1994.
Echoing the demands for more democratic and participatory mechanisms made over the weekend by the rally-goers in France, the Australian delegation emphasized that, this time, the agreements must take into account the interests of all WTO member states.