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Seattle shadow over WTO's Doha meet

By C. Rammanohar Reddy

GENEVA, JULY 29. A crucial two-day review meeting at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that begins tomorrow is not expected to bridge the chasms between countries on an agenda for new trade negotiations. With just a few working weeks left to resolve longstanding differences, it is now more than a faint possibility that the Doha ministerial conference in November will not see the launch of a fresh round of trade talks, which will then make Doha repeat the collapse at Seattle in 1999. But some observers believe that it will only take a E.U.-U.S. accord for pressure to build up on the rest of the WTO membership to fall in line; the first sign of which came at a weekend meeting of the Quad group (U.S., E.U., Canada and Japan) in Annecy, France, following which the two trade elephants are expected this week to jointly call on all countries to join a new round.

While some trade officials say that they are ``more than 70 per cent'' near a final agreement, the fine print of a ``reality check'' that will be discussed at the WTO this week shows that substantial differences, cutting across rich and poor countries, remain on a host of issues like the problems of the developing countries, the agenda for agriculture liberalisation and on new issues like a global treaty on foreign investment and rules on environment.

``The politics is not right for an agreement on the launch of a new round,'' said a senior trade official, in a reference to the U.S. President, Mr. George Bush's difficulty in getting the U.S. Congress' approval for ``fast track'' negotiations and to the mood in the E.U. where trade-related issues in agriculture and the environment are likely to figure prominently in the French Presidential polls of 2002.

Many feel that the E.U. holds the key to breaking the impasse. ``The entire WTO is turning inside out to accommodate the E.U.'s interests,'' says Dr. Geoff Raby, Australian Ambassador to the WTO, referring to the Europeans' continued insistence on a wide- ranging round that will cover innumerable issues.

Balanced agenda `possible'

``It is still possible to work out a balanced agenda,'' says Ambassador Mr. Kare Bryn from Norway, which is not a member of the E.U. but has broadly the same position at the WTO. Mr. Bryn of Norway, a country that has been traditionally keen on going slow on farm liberalisation, and Dr. Raby of Australia, which is a member of the Cairns group of agricultural exports, both feel that a deal can be reached on the agenda for agriculture, something has always proved difficult. Both also agree that the an equally important issue now is the E.U.'s demand that the next round should negotiate WTO rules on food safety, eco-labelling and related environmental issues in agriculture.

Dr. Raby calls this ``the make or break issue'' in the Doha preparations as a number of rich and poor countries see the European agenda on environment as farm protectionism in disguise. But Mr. Bryn describes European food safety concerns as ``genuine'' after the outbreak of the Mad Cow disease.

A view that has begun to do the rounds is that the E.U. will be ``quite happy'' to go to Doha with an undecided agenda and let the talks collapse in the Qatar capital. The E.U. will not be the loser as it can tell the French electorate and the European citizenry that it fought hard to put environment on the agenda. It can also blame the Cairns group and the developing countries for the failure to launch a new round.

A different outcome is predicted by Mr. Munir Akram, Pakistan's WTO Ambassador, who says that the import of the present differences should not be ``over-estimated''. Mr. Akram feels that it is possible that the E.U. and the U.S. will strike a deal, then first pressure the Cairns group to come round and finally target the developing countries. ``Ultimately it will be India, Malaysia and Pakistan who will decide if the developing world will be rolled over by the E.U. and the U.S.,'' says Mr. Akram. The three are the leading members of the ``like-minded group'' which opposes a comprehensive round of trade negotiations and has been demanding an immediate solution to the poor countries' problems in implementing the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement.

The most cynical result that is articulated by more than one trade official is that a broad political declaration will be issued in Doha announcing the launch of a round and it will be left to the officials to sort out the differences.

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