WTO negotiator abandons hope of meeting deadline

  • Business
  • Sunday, 30 Mar 2003


GENEVA: The man leading negotiations on reducing barriers to international trade in agriculture acknowledged Friday that it will be impossible to meet next week’s deadline to set the framework for cuts because of intractable national positions. 

Stuart Harbinson told the 145-nation World Trade Organisation that countries need to come up with new proposals and compromises. 

The blueprint is supposed to be agreed on March 31, but negotiators now fear the talking could continue for months. 

An agreement on agriculture is seen by many as the key to a wider round of trade liberalisation negotiations that are supposed to be completed by the end of next year. Already the WTO has missed a number of deadlines, but this failure would be the biggest so far. 

US chief negotiator Allen Johnson this week claimed the problems were caused by “the European Union's inability to engage and Japan's unwillingness to engage.'' Those countries insist the talks must take account of the fact that some subsidies are needed to ensure self-sufficiency, consumer protection and animal welfare standards. 

But EU negotiator Mary Minch denied that the 15-nation bloc is lagging behind and said some countries were demanding a lot from the EU without offering anything in return. 

“We feel that we have put forward an ambitious and balanced proposal which will move reform ahead in all the areas,’’ she said. 

Countries have been making proposals for months on how to reduce import tariffs on agricultural goods and cut back on subsidies paid to farmers, but they disagree widely on which areas to tackle and how far to go. 

While some nations – mostly large, agricultural exporting countries like Australia, the United States and Brazil – want to see major cuts, importers like the European Union and Japan have lesser ambitions. 

Some developing countries, including India, say they need to see big cuts to subsidies paid by rich nations before they would consider reducing import duties. 

Harbinson, who chairs the WTO committee negotiating on agriculture, produced a proposal for the agreement in February which called for import tariffs to be cut by up to 60%. 

It also proposed the elimination of all subsidies linked to exports within nine years and drastic cuts to other subsidies. But the Harbinson plan was roundly criticised from all sides. 

If agriculture discussions overrun, that could slow the progress in the WTO’s other areas of negotiation, such as trade in manufactured goods and trade in services like banking and telecommunications. – AP  

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