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No Sign That WTO Talks Will Resume Soon

by Sanjay Suri

WTO Struggles To Regroup After Cancun Summit Disaster
(IPS) LONDON -- Meetings held December failed to start the stalled World Trade Organization negotiations and there are few signs of movement in the New Year either, activists say.

They blame the European Union for refusing to budge on subsidies and market access, and for refusing to drop the so-called Singapore Issues -- investment, competition, trade facilitation and transparency in government procurement.

"The European Union is behaving like Santa in reverse," says Peter Hardstaff, head of policy with the World Development Movement (WDM), an independent non-governmental organisation based in London.

"Just as no deal at Cancun was better than a bad deal, continued stalemate at the WTO in Geneva is better than progress on the terms offered by the European Commission," he said.

WDM spokesman Dave Timms says there is little promise of progress in the New Year. "There have been some indications that the next ministerial meeting due in Hong Kong in 2005 will be brought forward to October next year," Timms told IPS. But there are no indications what could change over the next nine months, he said.

"A meeting in October 2004 would have to come just before the U.S. presidential election, and just before EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy leaves his post," Timms said. "Everyone is committed to completing the current round of negotiations by the beginning of 2005, but the chances of that happening are increasingly looking small."

Forty-four developing countries, including India, China and the Least Developed Countries issued a statement at the Dec. 15 meet of WTO officials in Geneva to demand that three of the four Singapore Issues be dropped altogether, and only that trade facilitation issues continue to be discussed.

"The EU is pushing all four issues at the moment," Timms said. "I don't really see much movement forward at all."

The EU and other rich nations must drop their proposals for the Singapore issues, says Campolina Soares, head of ActionAid's trade campaign. The Singapore issues were first raised at a trade ministers' conference in Singapore in 1996.

Soares also opposed the proposal that the "Derbez" text drafted in Cancun could form the basis for WTO negotiations. The "Derbez text" is the second revision of the draft Cancun ministerial text produced by Mexican ministerial chair Luis Ernesto Derbez Sept. 13 in Cancun.

ActionAid, a leading non-governmental organization, welcomed a report by a group of British MPs, which attacks EU attempts to push through the new issues at the WTO. The MPs said that Britain was failing to influence the EU stand on these issues.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, had published a proposal ahead of the Dec. 15 meeting that it wants negotiations to commence on all four of the Singapore issues. The paper was formally endorsed by the EU General Affairs Council.

The EC paper emphasises that the Singapore issues are still central to its trade ambitions. "The EU sees no reason to abandon the fundamental and long run objective of creating rules for these four issues as key drivers of the global economy," the paper says. "Nor should we shy away, as a matter of principle, from the WTO as a forum for rule-making."

The paper says: "In seeking to build a practical foundation for WTO work on the Singapore issues, the EU should start therefore from the premise that it remains desirable to pursue the four Singapore issues within the single undertaking."

But the EC does say that it may pursue a new approach. "As far as the EU is concerned, it is suggested that we now be ready to explore alternative approaches to negotiating the Singapore issues, possibly through removing them from the single undertaking of the negotiations and through negotiating them as plurilateral agreements if necessary."

This "plurilateral" approach in place of a multilateral approach presents a new danger, Hardstaff says. This approach broadly seeks to replace the idea of consensus with agreements among the willing.

"The Commission's response to the emphatic rejection of its policy by the developing world in Cancun has not been to ask whether it has the wrong policy but to come up with another tactic for getting what it wants," Hardstaff says.

The so-called plurilateral approach is "allowing WTO members to opt into negotiations," he says. "This was rejected by many developing countries who feared they would be bullied into joining against their wishes."

There are few signs that this approach will make any better headway in the New Year than the multilateral approach.

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Albion Monitor December 27, 2003 (

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