WTO nations at loggerheads over trade barriers

World Trade Organisation (WTO) members on Friday began another bruising attempt to revive the Doha Round talks on tearing down barriers to global commerce, as doubts rose about what they would be able to achieve.

“We’re going to try,” Canadian Ambassador Don Stephenson told journalists as top officials from dozens of key WTO governments headed into a closed-door session, which was to focus on how to cut farm subsidies and customs duties.

Asked whether there would be any point in negotiations continuing over coming days as planned, Stephenson, who steers the WTO’s industrial goods talks, said: “The signs are no.”

Another meeting of key players on Thursday had failed to find a breakthrough.

“It is extremely unlikely to have an agreement this weekend,” Peter Power, spokesperson for European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, told Agence France-Presse late on Thursday night.

“The positions are too far apart in the G6,” he said, referring to the grouping of WTO heavyweights, the EU, Australia, Brazil, India, Japan and the United States.

WTO chief Pascal Lamy earlier had warned that trading nations could no longer afford to duck a deal, after missing a host of deadlines during almost five years of stumbling negotiations.

Power, however, said that members could still try to make up lost ground in talks at the end of July.

The goal of the round, which was launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, is to tear down trade barriers and help developing economies accelerate economic growth.

Negotiations were originally meant to finish in 2004, but the end-date was later pushed back to December 2006.

Lamy, whose suggestions for breaking the logjam have won him slim praise and even outright criticism, refers regularly to the “triangle” needed to spur the talks.

US farm subsidy cuts and reductions in EU tariffs on agricultural imports should be met with deeper cuts in customs duties on manufactured goods levied by emerging countries such as Brazil and India, he says.

On Thursday, India threatened to walk away from the talks if the US refused to offer deeper cuts in its farm subsidies, which critics say give US agri-business an unfair advantage in world trade.

India’s Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said that the US, EU and other developed countries should make good on commitments to harness trade to help the poor.

He said developing nations would not compromise on the final Doha Round blueprint simply to meet a deadline for ending the talks.

Asked on Friday whether the US would come up with a new offer, US trade representative Susan Schwab did not comment directly.

“We’re looking forward to getting together with our colleagues and having an ambitious outcome to the round,” Schwab said as she arrived for the talks.

US officials had earlier reaffirmed that Washington’s existing subsidy cutting proposal would bring real benefits for world trade.

They also said that it was up to the 25-nation EU to slash its farm duties.

On Friday however, Mandelson knocked the ball back into the US court.

“People heard new things from the European Union [at Thursday’s session], now we’ll hopefully hear new things from others,” he said.—AFP

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