A sense of optimism surrounded WTO negotiations on a new global free trade pact on Saturday, but opposition from South Africa, India and a handful of others could doom hopes of a breakthrough, insiders said.
Ministers from 35 leading nations headed for meetings aiming to finally bridge their differences, with pressure piling on negotiators from India and Argentina which have signalled opposition to a deal.
“This afternoon’s session will be important. India will be looking to see what it can get out of the session to decide whether to ditch discussions,” a diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.
Ministers from 35 leading economies have been meeting at the World Trade Organisation since Monday to discuss cuts in subsidies and import tariffs with the aim of mapping out a new deal under the so-called Doha Round of WTO talks.
The Doha Round was launched in the Qatari capital seven years ago but has been deadlocked because of disputes between the rich developed world and poorer developing nations on trade in farm and industrial products.
The talks here were heading for collapse — like so many others since Doha began in 2001 — until a breakthrough late on Friday saw the biggest powers find common ground on a draft agreement proposed by WTO Director General Pascal Lamy.
Lamy said on Saturday that the draft agreement on trade in farm and industrial products was “not a final product, but one around which to build convergence to move us forward”, his spokesperson quoted him as saying.
He conceded that “there are elements in this package with which many are unhappy” and stressed that there were other sensitive subjects such as cotton subsidies in the rich world that needed to be addressed.
Attention is to turn to services on Saturday, the third component of a final agreement.
At the end of talks on Friday, leading negotiators emerged with upbeat assessments of the chance of success, but warned that some countries still risked sinking the process.
“I think the situation looks strong. I think we can be very hopeful now,” said European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.
“My opinion is that the chances of reaching an accord have risen to 65% from 50%,” said Brazil’s trade negotiator, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.
The United States warned that some countries could still torpedo the exercise.
Argentina described the draft agreement as unacceptable, South Africa said it could not approve it in its current form and Japan’s agriculture minister expressed strong dissatisfaction.
Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath has insisted all week that he will protect his country’s millions of subsistence farmers and nascent industry, which are shielded from imports by tariffs levied on foreign goods.
“We’re not very happy with the package, primarily on agricultural issues,” said Indian ambassador to the WTO, Ujal Singh Bhatia, on Saturday.
Indian newspaper Business Standard reported on Saturday that Nath had threatened to walk out of negotiations on Friday.
The marked turnaround on Friday emerged after meetings between seven key trading powers — the United States, the European Union, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Japan.
The talks then widened to a ministerial conference of all 35 key nations invited to Geneva to broker the pact.
Anything approved by the 35 parties here would still have to be cleared by all 153 WTO member states. A new global deal can only be adopted with unanimity.
The gathering is due to over-run its original programme, which foresaw an end on Saturday, and continue throughout the weekend and early next week, sources said.
Lamy’s spokesperson Keith Rockwell said the meeting would end “when we’ve finished our work”, reflecting widespread uncertainty.
Lamy had warned earlier on Friday that the talks faced failure unless countries showed flexibility and determination.
Among new proposals put forward by Lamy on Friday was a further cut in the US farm subsidies to $14,5-billion (€9,2-billion) per year and a clause to prevent developing countries from shielding entire sectors from tariff cuts, a source told AFP.
South African Deputy Trade Minister Rob Davies on Saturday said that the country could not accept the draft document in its current form.
“At this moment, we’re not in a position to give concurrence,” he told reporters, adding that proposals on industrial products remained a sticking point.
Even if an agreement could be forged, it would “fall far short” of its original aim of addressing the problems of the developing world, said Davies.
“Even if we reach an agreement … I don’t think we go out and can tell the world that this is an outcome that is going to solve the development problems of the world. It certainly won’t. It will fall far short of that,” he said.
Davies said that for SA, proposals on industrial products remained a sticking point.
The level of tariff cuts proposed were higher than the level sought by South African negotiators, he said. – AFP