World trade talks hit buffers

Global trade talks remained deadlocked in Hong Kong today after leading delegates meeting late into the night failed to reach agreement on setting a date for ending export subsidies on farm goods – again blaming European countries for blocking progress.

Global trade talks remained deadlocked in Hong Kong today after leading delegates meeting late into the night failed to reach agreement on setting a date for ending export subsidies on farm goods – again blaming European countries for blocking progress.

There was “nothing new, to speak the truth. It was everyone reiterating their positions without any conclusion”, said Brazil’s foreign minister Celso Amorim, emerging at 3am. “But it took four hours”.

Amorim, a key figure representing developing countries, said the vast majority of the 30-odd World Trade Organisation members participating in the pre-dawn negotiations spoke in favour of setting a date, but “there were at least two that were against, so there was no conclusion, because here everything is set by consensus”.

The two, he said, were the European Union and Switzerland.

EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson and French trade minister Christine Lagarde defended the 25-nation bloc’s position, saying the EU had offered generous cuts in its agricultural trade barriers, including an average 46% cut in farm tariffs.

The six-day Hong Kong talks, aimed at setting a framework for a global trade treaty, have also been snarled by an impasse over how much to cut rich countries’ farm subsidies, which developing nations say give wealthy nations an unfair trade advantage.

Export subsidies, a key area of contention in the talks, are funds paid by governments to domestic producers to promote exports.

With the talks entering a third day, the assessment so far was grim.

“There was no movement,” India’s trade minister Kamal Nath said.

“Unless the EU moves on market access, I don’t see anyone else moving,” US trade representative Rob Portman told reporters.

Mandelson reiterated that he would not propose further concessions until poorer nations offered to open up their industrial and services markets to foreign competition.

Meanwhile, activists planned three more protest marches today. The previous two days saw dozens of South Korean farmers clash with police outside the harbour-front conference centre.

The farmers, who are worried that a global treaty cutting import barriers would wipe out their domestic rice market and their livelihoods, tried to break through a police line, and security forces fought back with pepper spray, clubs and shields.

“The WTO will make all poor farmers in the world starve to death and in that case we’d rather be beaten to death,” said Seo Jung-eui, who promised that the protests would continue throughout the conference, which runs until Sunday.

Delegates from the 149-member WTO are attempting to draft an outline for a final agreement on cutting trade barriers in agriculture, manufacturing and services, but the stalemate over farm trade has made that highly unlikely.

Mandelson warned delegates that focusing on agriculture could prevent the talks from reaching a final agreement by their deadline of late next year.

He also hit out at other rich countries for objecting to a proposal to give the world’s least-developed nations duty-free and quota-free access – a proposal meant to help 32 WTO members with a per capita income of less than €618.90 a year.

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