Amid tension, one common point: 2008 critical for Doha talks

Written by Sourav Majumdar | Davos, Jan 28 | Updated: Jan 29 2008, 04:17am hrs
One of the key takeaways from this years World Economic Forum Annual Meeting was the realisation that 2008 would be a make or break year for the Doha trade talks, as trade leaders urged businesses to press their governments to seek a successful completion to the talks this year.

The flip side to this could be a rise in new barriers to international commerce, they said as activity on the trade front heightened towards the end of Davos 2008, one marked by heightened fears of a recession knocking at the doors of the global economy.

Peter Mandelson, the European Commission trade commissioner at Brussel summed it up succinctly. If its not concluded this year, it wont be concluded next year - and by 2010 the caravans will have moved on elsewhere. Not only will the caravans have moved on in different directions of trade negotiations, but what has already been on the table, which in my view is quite substantial, will have been put into deep freeze.

Panelists at the WEF were clear that time was running out for reaching an agreement to reduce tariffs, subsidies and promoting freer trade, particularly since its less than a year before US President George Bush demits office. The Doha talks have all but ground to a halt, and there were moves on at Davos to try and revive them as quickly as possible. The stage was set for such efforts earlier on at the WEF 2008, when US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said US was still committed to reviving the Doha talks. US Trade Representative Susan Schwab too insisted President Bush remains strongly committed to reaching a trade deal, and bipartisan support for a deal in the US Congress means there is still time to ratify a deal if one can be reached.

An informal lunch meeting of trade ministers in Davos was also held. Concerns persist among developing countries that lower tariffs will unfairly expose poor rural farmers to global competition and jeopardize growth that would be a potential buffer against a global slowdown. Indias commerce minister Kamal Nath, one of the key actors at Davos this year, made it clear that developing nations werent in any mood to budge. The content of this Round must deliver to healthy economies in Asia, in Africa, in the Pacific and in Latin America because thats the goose thats laying the golden egg, Nath said.

But most concede the cost of failure is rising. Failure in the Doha Round could increase protectionist pressures around the world and result in a rollback from the progress already made towards freer global trade, trade leaders said. Pascal Lamy, Director-General, World Trade Organisation, Geneva, said a failure in the talks could exacerbate the impact of a slowing global economy and heighten geopolitical tensions.