Agriculture at centre of threat to WTO talks

26 November 1999

Agriculture at centre of threat to WTO talks

By Philip Clarke

THE next round of world trade talks, due to be launched next week in Seattle, could fail to get off the ground at all due to continuing problems over agriculture.

Up to 5000 officials from 135 countries are due to attend the four-day meeting, which is supposed to finalise the agenda for the so-called millennium round.

This aims to progress the policies agreed in the last round – held in Uruguay – leading to freer markets and fewer trade-distorting subsidies.

The intention was to have a draft declaration already in place ahead of the Seattle summit so that trade ministers could simply sign on the dotted line.

But WTO negotiators, meeting in Geneva this week, were still divided on how the talks, which are expected to last at least three years, should deal with agriculture.

The Cairns group, led by Australia, insists that the declaration should contain a commitment to end all export subsidies.

But trade commissioner Pascal Lamy, the EUs senior negotiator, said that while the EU was prepared to negotiate a reduction, it would not agree to their elimination.

The meeting in Seattle could fail to launch the millennium round because difficulties, including a US demand to get minimum labour standards on the agenda.

Farm commissioner Franz Fischler set out the EUs position at the briefing in more detail, stating that Agenda 2000 reforms would form the basis for negotiation.

Farmers would not be “sacrificed on the altar of free trade”, though it was essential that direct income aids remained protected from WTO cuts.

Both commissioners called for wide-ranging talks, including environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety.

“The more negotiating chips there are on the table, the easier it is to agree on a package,” said Mr Fischler.

This contrasts with the USA, which wants a tighter agenda so the administration will be seen to be making progress in time for next years presidential elections.

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