World trade talks reached an apparent breakthrough on the most contentious issue of the six-day session today, with an agreement that wealthy countries would eliminate farm export subsidies by 2013.
This would pave the way for a modest agreement to cut trade barriers across various sectors, according to a copy of the final draft agreement obtained by journalists.
The breakthrough, coming after all-night negotiations in Hong Kong, appeared to save the World Trade Organisation meeting from an embarrassing collapse - providing the final draft is approved by all 149 member nations and territories meeting later today.
But the draft represents a far less ambitious agreement than WTO negotiators had originally hoped to achieve in Hong Kong: a detailed set of formulas for cutting farm and industrial tariffs and subsidies.
The revised text sets April 30, 2006, as a new deadline to work out those details, a key step toward forging a global free trade treaty by the end of next year.
The 2013 date for the end of farm subsidies was a key demand of the European Union, which held out against intense pressure from Brazil and other developing nations to phase out a significant proportion of its farm export subsidies by 2010.
Developing nations say such government farm payments to promote exports undercuts the competitive advantage of poor farmers.
The draft noted “the compelling urgency of seizing the moment and driving the process to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. We must maintain momentum. You don’t close divergences by taking time off to have a cup of tea,” it said.
“To meet this challenge and achieve this goal, we must act decisively and with real urgency,” the text said.
The final draft also calls on wealthy nations to allow duty-free and quota-free privileges to at least 97% of products exported by the so-called least developed countries by 2008.
In a victory for West African cotton-producing nations, the text retained an earlier proposal that rich countries eliminate all export subsidies on cotton in 2006.
That represents a concession by the United States, a major cotton exporter, and US Trade Representative Rob Portman had said the proposal would be a hard sell to US politicians.
Cotton growers in Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad and Mali say the US farm aid drives down prices, making it impossible for small family farms to compete in international markets.