WORLD TRADE ORGANISATION: Trade talks in limbo



When the world's six top business clubs unite to call on the eight most powerful governments to help breathe new life into global trade talks, you can be sure those negotiations have hit a rock.

The European Round of Industrialists, the US Business Round Table, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, Japan's Nippon Keidanren and the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederation of Europe issued a joint statement on May 21. It urged the June 1-3 G8 summit to "demonstrate leadership" and steer current World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade talks back on track.

The trade negotiations, dubbed the "Doha round", were launched at the November 2001 fourth WTO ministerial summit in Doha, Qatar. A mid-term "stocktaking" of those talks is to take place at the fifth WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, on September 10-14. The goal will be to complete the talks and implement the resulting trade rules on January 1, 2005.

The joint statement was not the first expression of concern by world capitalist bodies about the prospects of the Doha round talks. At the April 29-30 ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who chaired that meeting, admitted that "not enough progress has been made to date on the development agenda". Clark was referring to the concern of Third World WTO members that the organisation's rules (and their implementation) have ignored their development needs.

In early May, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum circulated a statement among politicians expressing its concern that, in the absence of "significant breakthroughs in the next few months", there is a danger of a delay or even collapse of the Doha round. The top executives of key multinational corporations, such as Unilever, Pfizer, Nestle and Deutsche Bank, authored the statement.

On May 14, 18 influential Americans — including former US secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Alexander Haig, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former US Trade Representative Carla Hills — published a joint statement in the French daily Le Monde, urging that "the Doha round be pursued with the utmost sense of urgency so that it can be successfully completed at the earliest possible time".

"Admittedly", the statement conceded, "it may prove difficult to conclude those negotiations by January 1, 2005 but, at the very least, on the way to completing the Doha round, other existing divisive trade issues between the United States and the [European Union] should be resolved by that time". The statement urged the US and the EU to put their differences behind them and to rebuild the "transatlantic partnership".

The ICC shares this concern and spelled it out more explicitly in a May 20 statement addressed to the G8: "Our key message, now that the war in Iraq is over is to urge governments to put their divisions behind them and commit themselves to renewed multilateral cooperation for the vital purposes of reinvigorating a weak global economy."

Missed deadlines

Since the second world war, imperialist countries have been trying to force open markets in the Third World, and undermine the power of Third World governments to make sovereign decisions on trade policy, through instituting a one-size-fits-all global trade regime for all countries, regardless of differing economic strengths and development needs.

During the last trade talks round in 1986-94, binding trade rules, which can attract sanctions for non-compliance, were extended from trade in physical goods to "non-physical" services, intellectual property and "trade-related investment matters". These rules still have not been consolidated.

Meanwhile, the trade rules on physical goods, such as on agricultural products, still have to be tightened. As well, the imperialist countries, especially the EU, are keen to extend the trade order to four other areas (dubbed the "new issues" or "Singapore issues"): investment matters, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation.

Already struggling to comply with the rules instituted in 1994, and realising that the imperialist countries were unwilling to deliver on earlier promises, many Third World representatives revolted at the 1999 Seattle WTO ministerial meeting, thus frustrating the rich countries' hopes of launching a new trade round. That launch was delayed until November 2001 in Qatar and was achieved in the shadow of the intimidating US war drive in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US.

But the differences between key EU countries (France and Germany) and the US over the war on Iraq provided breathing space for the Third World during the Doha round negotiations.

One after the other, key deadlines — on drug patents and public health, agriculture, "special and differential treatment" and "implementation issues" — were missed over the last few months, calling into question what could possibly be achieved in Cancun and whether the whole trade round may suffer a major delay.

Despite the revolt at Seattle, the imperialist countries have failed to ease the pain that many Third World countries are suffering under the existing trade rules. All four deadlines missed so far are issues of high concern to the Third World.

The drug patent issue revolves around the US refusal to allow Third World countries suffering severe disease emergencies to ignore drug patents and import cheaper, generic medicines. The agriculture talks failed because the EU and the US want to continue to pay huge subsidies to their farmers and their exports, which seriously undermines the competitiveness of Third World producers. At the same time, the West rejects Third World demands to retain the right to protect their farmers.

"Special and differential treatment" relates to the Third World governments' demand that they be entitled to concessional treatment because of their countries' pressing developmental needs.

"Implementation issues" deal with Third World countries' complaint that First World governments fail to observe the trade rules in spirit, thus depriving poor countries of the much-needed benefits promised them.

The Third World also wants longer grace periods in meeting some existing rules because the rich countries' empty promises have seriously undermined their ability to meet other WTO obligations.

Agreement on the "new issues" will provide imperialist capital with new avenues to economically re-colonise the Third World. In order to entice developing countries into accepting these rules, the EU is blackmailing Third World countries by saying that their demands during the Doha round won't be considered unless they accept the "new issues" rules.

WTO 'democracy'

While the WTO formally adheres to decisions by consensus among its almost 150 member countries, the WTO bureaucracy is notorious for colluding with the rich countries in the decision-making process. The infamous "green room" meetings, to which only a handful of selected national representatives are invited and where the real negotiations and decisions take shape, are a key tool to that end. A new trick is the projected heavy use of "open-ended" informal head of delegations meetings (HODs) to engineer key decisions.

The May 29 Geneva Update newsletter analysed the danger: "Open-ended means all members are welcome to come, but given the frequency of these meetings in the run up to Cancun, it is unlikely that all heads of delegations will attend... For many developing country ambassadors it will simply be impossible to attend because of the number of meetings taking place in the WTO and the UN... it is also clear that once the HODs process gets under way and closer to Cancun, many will not even know about all the meetings taking place."

A new measure announced in May was that the chairperson of the WTO general council and its director-general will consult "in a variety of smaller configurations" on specific issues and the results will be "reported back" to the HODs. Geneva Update warned that this procedure will remove "any documentation of the consultations ... thus people not present in the room (including [mainly poor] governments who do not have missions in Geneva) are completely removed from this process".

So much for "WTO democracy".

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.
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