Experts Predict Doha Deadline Stretching Up To 2007

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Brussels, Nov 2: | Updated: Nov 3 2003, 05:30am hrs
The jury is still out on the total collapse of Cancun meeting of trade ministers of 146-member World Trade Organization (WTO). Is the Doha Development round of trade negotiations dead and buried Or can it be revived in December, when the WTO general council holds its meeting

So far only official voices have been heard over here in the post mortem on Cancun. But what of informed European public opinion - the independent think tanks, academics and interested citizens How do they see the key issue exercising official minds and development NGOs like Oxfam

The issue is agriculture, of course. A public debate organized here by the Brussels-based Trans-European Policy Studies Association revealed a generation gap on this issue. Older Europeans clearly have a sentimental attachment to agriculture which their younger contemporaries do not share. European farmers were strongly defended by an Italian journalist and editorial writer who has followed the progress of European integration from Brussels for the last 40 years.

For Ferdinando Riccardi the countryside needs farmers. Without them, rural Europe would become a wasteland, while the exodus from the countryside would transform European cities into megalopolitan nightmares. It would mean the end of European agriculture, were the European Union (EU) to give in to pressure from the G-21, and more particularly from India, China and Brazil, and to open up its domestic market to imports.

For Mr Riccardi, the real global problem is the imbalance between the worlds rich and its poor. People in poor countries, who do not have enough to eat, want to sell food to Europeans, who can feed themselves and, in any case, account for only 5% of the worlds population.

But the elderly Mr Riccardis passionate defense of European farmers and farming was received with scepticism by the younger members of the audience. One of them saw no reason why farmers should not go the way of European miners or steel makers or factory workers, large numbers of whom have lost their jobs without any public outcry.

Another of the three speakers, a university professor and contemporary of Mr Riccardi, came to his defense. Prof Laurent Van Depoele noted that some 45% of the EU budget of over $100 billion is still devoted to supporting European farmers in a number of ways, including price support and export subsidies.

He agreed that 80% of the EUs expenditure on agricultural support goes to just 20% of the farmers. In other words, the farms which are receiving the bulk of the funds are not your small family farms but very large farms, run on industrial lines. Even so, Prof Van Depoele favoured supporting all farmers, as they are a key factor in rural development.

The conclusion - that Europe must continue to restrict imports of agricultural products - is hardly acceptable to the governments of India, China and Brazil, for example. But both Mr Riccardi and Prof Van Depoele were careful to safeguard the interests of those developing countries with whom the EU has commercial and other links.

The fact is that since it was set up in 1958, the EU has maintained close ties with African countries. Today more than 70 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries are associated with the EU through the Cotonu convention, under which they enjoy preferential access to the EU market for virtually all their exports.

For MM Riccardi and Van Depoele, many of these countries still concentrate their efforts, as in colonial times, on growing one or two crops (e.g. coffee, cocoa, cotton, palm oil) for the EU and other export markets. The answer is to teach them to grow food for domestic consumption, and to provide them the necessary technical and financial help.

However, perhaps the oddest and most surprising proposal for dealing with the deadlock in the WTO was put forward by Prof Van Depoele. He thought the future of the WTO lay in its integration into the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Office (ILO). Such a move, in his view, would allow trade and development problems to be dealt with more effectively.

A very different approach was favoured by the last of the three speakers, Karl Falkenberg. One of the EUs key trade negotiators in Cancun, he pointed out that developing countries need to export their agricultural products to the EU - in order to be able to import manufactured products from Europe.

Mr Falkenberg also explained why the Cancun negotiations collapsed. Mexicos foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, who was presiding over the negotiations, decided to stake everything on what he was told was the most difficult item on the agenda - the so-called Singapore issues (competition, investment, trade facilitation and greater transparency in government procurement). If these negotiations failed, then there was little point in continuing the ministerial session.

Negotiations on the Singapore issues opened on the last day. But after five hours of very difficult negotiations the Mexican foreign minister concluded that agreement was impossible. Rather than continue the negotiations, he announced in a meeting of all the trade ministers that he was closing the Cancun session.

However, before actually doing so, the minister looked carefully around the hall, to see whether one or other trade minister would challenge his decision and propose that the negotiations be continued on some other item on the agenda - say agriculture. In the event, none did, and the Mexican foreign minister then formally closed the meeting.

For Mr Falkenberg, no country wanted to continue the negotiations - certainly not the G-21 leaders, who feared that the group would break up if it actually had to engage in negotiations over agriculture. The US Trade representative remained silent because Washington favours bilateral or regional free trade agreements anyways. The EUs chief trade negotiator, Pascal Lamy, was also silent, because he felt that in the event that the negotiations on agriculture resumed, the EU would be asked to make further concessions. All three speakers agreed that the Doha Development round will resume, probably when the WTO general council meets in Geneva in December. But all three agreed that the deadline set at Doha for the conclusion of the negotiations - end 2004 - will not be met. Indeed the negotiations will probably continue until 2007.