Special edition: Global food trade

What's going down with Doha?

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags World trade organization Us

Two weeks ago world leaders extended the deadline on the
beleaguered Doha trade round to the end of this year. Exhortations
not to let the opportunity pass have ensued, but big barriers must
still be overcome before a positive conclusion can be reached.

The Doha Development Agenda, launched in November 2001 in the Qatari capital Doha, aims to free global trade by cutting industrial and agricultural tariffs and by reducing farm subsidies, with a special focus on achieving concrete benefits for developing countries. The final round of talks was suspended last July, since World Trade Organisation (WTO) members refused to budge on issues such as the lowering of tariffs on certain goods. With the deadline set to pass at the end of June, the prospect of a conclusion to satisfy all-comers seemed dim. But on April 11 and 12 the EU, US, India, Brazil, Japan and Australia met in New Delhi, India, for their first formal meeting since July and breathed new life into the agenda by extending the deadline to the end of the year. "We believe that by intensifying our work, we can reach convergence and thus contribute to concluding the round by the end of 2007,"​ said the group of six (G6) after the meetings. Although the G6 didn't achieve a break-though on the main stickling points - such as reducing subsidies for European and US farmers and lowering customs duties to provide greater access to developing markets - according to reports US, EU, India and Brazil are planning another get-together in mid-May to put "specific concessions"​ on the table. This could well prove the balance in which the success or failure of the talks hangs. This week all eyes have been on the US, as WTO director general Pascal Lamy told a US Chamber of Commerce Monday that the country's stance will be crucial in the coming weeks. "If WTO members do not energize the negotiations soon, governments will be forced to confront the unpleasant reality of failure,"​ he warned. The US is in the throes of dealing with an extension of its internal agricultural subsidy programme, the 2007 Farm Bill, which has raised consternation by offering only modest cuts in domestic support, and assistance to workers who lose their jobs as a result of free trade. Domestic issues these may be, but ones which are nonetheless seen as an indication of commitment to the talks. The intransigence of the US was seen as one of the main blockades to a successful outcome last year, leading to criticisms of greedy developed nations standing in the way of a more equitable global trading environment that would give developing nations faired access to lucrative markets. As for Europe, EU agriculture minister Mariann Fischer-Boel has repeatedly stepped up to the plate to express eagerness to restart talks. At the International Forum on Agriculture and Food in Italy last October she spelled out Europe's impetus for bringing the round to a successful end. "In terms of agriculture, everyone knows that we have 'defensive interests' in these negotiations; but we also have very strong offensive interests: winning greater international recognition for Geographical Indications, for example, or bringing discipline to trade-distorting domestic support in the US."​ Yet this week the EU has also come in for criticism as EU trade ministers gave the green-light for free-trade negotiations with key trading partners in Asia (India, South Korea and ASEAN countries). The strategy is aimed at helping European companies access to new markets so as to stimulate competitiveness and growth in Europe, as was seen as a priority following the Doha suspension. But given the current state of play for Doha, the timing is seen as extremely poor since it could divert interest from establishing a multilateral trading system, and make the bloc's trading system more complicated still. The EU stance on Doha is driven by a powerful food lobby. The CIAA (confederation of the food and drink industries), supportive of the talks from the outset, said after the July stalemate that businesses had expected the multilateral process to deliver a level playing field through improved disciplines in agricultural policies and to offer enhanced trade opportunities. But it is developing nations who have the most to win - or lose - from the outcome. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the point at the Doha forum on development, democracy and free trade on Monday, saying that ultimate failure of the talks would lead to "serious damage"​ for them. And after such a protracted period of talks, developing countries are not looking likely to settle for less. The host of the New Delhi meetings, Indian trade minister Kamal Nath, said afterwards that, from his country's perspective, a successful outcome to the talks means his country's needs being met. "As far as India is concerned, while speed in concluding the negotiations is important, the crucial element is the content of the outcome."

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