Commonwealth chief pessimistic of WTO deal

Developed countries have to bite the bullet and dig deeper to make this week’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade talks a success and bring an end to world poverty, the head of the 53-nation Commonwealth said on Monday.

On the eve of six days of trade talks in Hong Kong, Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon urged rich nations not to let pass a golden opportunity to bring wealth to the poor.

“More has to be given than received by the developed countries,” McKinnon said in an interview. “If you see what’s on the table now you’re not seeing a lot of satisfaction—much more is expected.”

Leaders of the grouping of mostly former British colonies issued a statement last month calling for a deal at the WTO’s sixth ministerial conference in Hong Kong that would scrap export subsidies by 2010.

The WTO talks hope to bring down tariffs and other barriers to trade that experts say are preventing poorer economies from developing their own markets and gaining access to overseas customers.

The talks are at stalemate, however, over cuts to agricultural subsidies offered by rich nations.

“[Nothing is moving] because of the intransigence on agriculture,” McKinnon said. “Agriculture has become the trigger of trust.
With a really significant move on that by the Europeans and the US, a whole lot of other things can happen.”

In a 17-point statement on multilateral trade, Commonwealth leaders called on the European Union to show movement.

McKinnon said that unless the EU makes more concessions, the goal of this round of talks—bringing the benefits of trade to poor countries—will be lost.

“At the present time, our concern is that the development side of this round appears to be getting lost—it has been significantly diminished,” said McKinnon. “This was the whole purpose of the round.”

He said the Commonwealth’s 53 members—which represent 40% of WTO members and 20% of WTO trade and which range from the richest, like Britain, to the poorest, like Bangladesh—fear the chance of a deal is falling away from them.

“The Uruguay round [of WTO talks] was of tremendous benefit to developed countries. Developing countries didn’t get much out of it at all, but they were promised that they would get it at this round,” he said. “But now the signs are they are not going to get anything out of it.

“Developing countries feel they gave away so much in the last round for little in return that they are not prepared to put a lot on the table now until they see something more substantial.”

Summit chairperson John Tsang said he hopes at least a deal on development could be struck even if trade talks go nowhere.

He suggested a package of measures that would boost duty-free trade, improve patent and other intellectual property issues and ease access to markets for non-agricultural products could be achieved.

But McKinnon said nothing could realistically be done without a deal on agriculture.

“For many developing countries, their only real comparative advantage is commodity production—if they can see benefits from producing commodities, principally agricultural commodities, I’m sure they’ll be prepared to deal on other areas,” he said.

Although McKinnon said he is pessimistic that a trade deal could be done, he believes his organisation has the clout to make some difference.

“We are able to cross many barriers, represent many centres in the world,” he said. “If you’re a small Commonwealth country, no one will listen, but if you link up with other countries the likelihood of getting something is much greater,” he said.—AFP

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