BY SEAN HEALY
Fearful that their hopes for a new round of global "free trade" talks will turn to dust, rich country governments have scheduled an emergency summit for the end of August to discuss the future of the World Trade Organisation.
The summit, likely to meet in Mexico on August 31, will involve some 20 countries, including the "Quad" of major trading countries (Europe, US, Japan, Canada), other rich nations including Australia and select Third World countries including Egypt, South Africa and Malaysia.
The summit will discuss whether there is any chance of using the scheduled November ministerial meeting of the WTO, to be held in Qatar, to launch a new comprehensive round of trade liberalisation talks.
Rich country negotiators had set themselves a July deadline for a "reality check" on whether a new round is viable.
But following a July 13 "stock-taking" session of the WTO's General Council in Geneva, chairperson Stuart Harbinson was forced to admit that "the differences between positions have narrowed little, if at all, on the more difficult issues".
In desperation, rich country governments are hoping that the August summit will provide them one last opportunity to get crucial backing for the undertaking.
Since massive public protests and a revolt by Third World governments forced the abandonment of the last attempt to launch such a round in Seattle in 1999, rich country governments have had enormous difficulties winning support for further trade talks.
Many Third World governments, especially members of the 13 Like-Minded Group, are opposed to a new round altogether, saying that the previous round which formed the WTO was tilted in favour of rich countries and needs to be fixed before there are any more negotiations.
Members of the Like-Minded Group are Cuba, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Jamaica.
Other Third World countries, including South Africa, back a new round, but only if the agenda includes "development issues", including revisions of existing WTO agreements which have impacted harshly on their trading systems.
But rich country governments, particularly Europe and the US, have shown little interest in giving anything more than lip service to Third World concerns.
The US, for instance, has ruled out any concessions on its anti-dumping policies, which many poor countries claim are used to discriminate against their most competitive exports.
Europe, meanwhile, is only willing to give concessions on access to its heavily protected agriculture market, an issue of enormous concern to Third World commodity exporters, if it gains more from changes to other countries' rules on investment, government procurement and competition policy.
Despite forests-worth of declarations of unity and consensus on trade issues, the US and Europe themselves are far from agreed on the terms of a new round. The US wants a more limited set of topics, while Europe wanting a more comprehensive round to ensure maximum negotiating leverage.
A failure to launch a new round in Qatar would be a major blow to the legitimacy and credibility of the six-year-old, 141-member WTO and could possibly signal its descent into international irrelevance.