Mandelson: Trivial clause sinks world trade talks

The collapse of world trade talks in Geneva has been bitterly condemned by EU trade negotiator Peter Mandelson as “a burial”.

The collapse of world trade talks in Geneva has been bitterly condemned by EU trade negotiator Peter Mandelson as “a burial”.

Nine days of virtually non-stop talks involving dozens of trade ministers and hundreds of trade experts from more than 30 countries broke down over the refusal of China and India to open up agriculture markets to US imports as much as Washington wanted.

The American delegation said the “safeguard clause” protecting developing nations from unrestricted imports had been set too low.

Mr Mandelson made clear in a blog from the Geneva talks that he could not believe a global trade deal seven years in the making and already two years overdue could be scuppered by something so relatively trivial.

Before the talks finally ended in acrimony this afternoon, the EU Trade Commissioner wrote that the talks were making progress on other trade issues and went on: “The mood in the EU negotiating team and among the other delegations around the World Trade Organisation is one of disbelief.

“How could the Doha Round be sunk by a safeguard clause? Everybody is aware we are on the brink.”

The talks need a willingness to compromise, Mr Mandelson pointed out, and if that did not happen, “(it) won’t be a negotiation – it will be a burial, however it is made to look”.

This afternoon the main negotiating nations, the US, EU, China, India, Japan, Australia and Brazil – gave up efforts to bring the so-called Doha Development Round to a close.

Mr Mandelson's own negotiating tactics - offering 60% cuts in EU agriculture tariffs - have been constantly attacked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who even blamed Mr Mandelson for stirring Irish farmers into rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in last month's referendum.

Yesterday, the French President called EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso demanding that Mr Mandelson be sent immediately to the Elysee Palace to explain himself.

The suggestion was politely declined and Mr Mandelson, the only EU Commissioner with a negotiating mandate to speak on behalf of 27 countries, pointed out that he was busy negotiating a global trade deal.

Some other EU countries felt Mr Mandelson was exceeding his brief and giving away too much, but beyond the EU carping, the Trade Commissioner was avoiding blame for the breakdown in Geneva.

Mr Mandelson said last night: “The EU is in the unusual position of being on the edge of a Doha argument rather than in the middle. Although we have obvious commercial interests in these (developing country) markets for our processed agricultural goods, we can live with the proposed safeguard levels.

“The basic problem is that the Indians, the Chinese and other defensive developing countries want the safeguard to be triggered at a level that the US thinks is too low.”

The Doha Round began in 2001 with a 2005 deadline set for a deal. But the talks struggled on beyond the cut-off point, collapsing in acrimony in mid-2006 over trade protectionism and trade barriers, then relaunched at the start of 2007.

The issue has dominated Mr Mandelson’s political life since Tony Blair sent him to Brussels as Trade Commissioner in 2004.

Before the latest talks started, Mr Mandelson said a deal would offer the only glimmer of hope in the current economic gloom, specifically determining the economic fate of developing nations and offering new global markets to rich countries too.

Mr Mandelson said international agreements on climate change, food security and energy use could depend on a Doha Round accord – countering a mood clouded by soaring inflation, high food and fuel prices, and high unemployment.

Today international development agency Christian Aid said blame for the collapse lay squarely with major agricultural exporting countries “putting self interest above other considerations”.

Central was the deadlock over the safeguard clause, which would have enabled developing countries to impose or raise tariffs to protect their poor and vulnerable farmers from surges of agricultural imports.

But Christian Aid’s senior economic justice adviser, Matthew Coughlan said: “No deal is better than a bad deal, when development is at stake.

“We applaud the stand that developing countries have taken throughout the talks in defending the livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable farmers. We hope that any future talks can place development firmly back on the agenda.”

The organisation accused rich countries, particularly the EU and US, of resisting calls to reduce the “enormous” subsidies they give their farmers.

Such support had been one of the main barriers to developing countries being able to trade their way out of poverty, Christian Aid claimed.

Today US trade representative Susan Schwab emerged from the Geneva talks to say: “We were so close to getting this done.”

But she insisted she was not declaring the Doha Round at an end.

A verdict on the fate of the long-running negotiation is expected later from Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Pascal Lamy – who is also Mr Mandelson’s predecessor in the EU trade hot seat.

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