Ministers meet to put 2010 Doha deal in sight

Trade ministers met in New Delhi on Thursday for talks that World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Pascal Lamy said could lay the groundwork for a final push to reach a new global free-trade pact next year.

“The WTO ministers will have the opportunity to map out how they intend to bring the Doha round to a close in 2010,” WTO director general Lamy told reporters.

“The meeting can be the real beginning of the endgame of the round,” he added.

The two days of informal ministerial level talks are also seen as preparation for further progress at a meeting of leaders of the Group of 20 wealthy and emerging nations in Pittsburgh later this month.

“We are in the endgame of Doha negotiations,” Australia’s Trade Minister, Simon Crean, declared on the eve of the talks to be attended by key WTO players including the European Union, the United States and China.

India’s differences with the US over subsidy protection for poor farmers contributed to the collapse in July 2008 of the long-running Doha Development Round, which is aimed at lifting millions out of poverty and boosting the global economy.

Now India has grabbed the initiative to “re-energise” the stalled negotiations and take the opportunity shed its reputation as a “spoiler” of the round.

Top industrial nations and five emerging economies, including India and China, agreed in July to conclude a deal by the end of 2010.

India’s new Trade Minister, Anand Sharma, regarded by observers as more conciliatory than his predecessor, Kamal Nath, says New Delhi is keen for a successful conclusion of the negotiations, which began in 2001.

But, like his predecessor, Sharma has also insisted there can be no compromise on the round’s development thrust and said New Delhi wants to “ensure historic distortions are corrected” to improve the lives of the poor.

Farmers and leftist groups said they would stage a protest at the meeting, which will focus on ways to close gaps on liberalising trade in agricultural and manufactured goods.

Doha “demands so much from us while giving nothing in return”, said Yudhvir Singh, spokesperson for the Indian Committee of Farmers’ Movements, representing 13 states.

Meanwhile, Indian officials have played down the chances of any breakthrough, saying talks would focus on crafting a game plan for negotiators to reach a deal.

“This is not going to be a negotiating forum,” Commerce Secretary Rahul Khullar, the top civil servant in India’s Trade Ministry, said prior to the talks. “This is going to be about the process of negotiation — how we do a deal.”

In order for a final deal to be reached, all 153 WTO members must agree to a pact that would radically reduce subsidies given to North American and European farmers while lowering other trade barriers.

Deadlock between the major trading blocs has dashed repeated attempts to reach agreement, but with new governments in Washington and India, there is renewed hope for success.

The talks should provide “the clarity needed to understand the opportunities for meaningful market access” and pave the way for a successful Doha conclusion, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk said before leaving for New Delhi.

US President Barack Obama has said he wants a Doha deal, but analysts say he faces pressure from domestic industry groups, which want protection. — AFP

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