Setbacks and missed deadlines plague WTO talks

World Trade Organisation negotiators in Geneva have been forced to abandon their end-April deadline for wrapping up the current round of talks, casting fresh doubt on the chances of securing a trade deal at all.

At the Hong Kong ministerial last December it was agreed that the so-called “modalities” – setting exact numbers and timeframes for cuts in agricultural supports, export subsidies and import tariffs – should be finalised by 30 April.

But progress has been so slow that the chairman of the agricultural talks, Crawford Falconer, has abandoned the deadline and cancelled a ministerial meeting planned for this week.

EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said the decision was “regrettable”, but added, “it was certainly not because of lack of ambition on our side”.

The EU has already agreed to end all agricultural export subsidies by 2013 and offered to cut trade distorting subsidies by 70% and lower its highest tariffs by 60%.

Mrs Fischer Boel also told the European parliament’s agriculture committee this week that “now is certainly not the moment to make any new concessions”.

But it understood that the commission is already preparing to give more ground in the area of trade distorting domestic supports.

A leaked paper shows that it is considering cuts of 75%, rather than 70%, if other parties make concessions elsewhere.

“If a move was suggested, it is because CAP reform gave us enough room for manoeuvre.”

Environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth welcomed the delay to the Doha Development Round, which it believes is offering too little to developing countries, while paving the way for multinationals and more powerful countries to reap the benefits of freer world markets.

“This week’s cancelled meeting reflects the fact that the WTO talks are in crisis and could soon collapse,” said trade campaigner Ronnie Hall.