By Boyd Champness
WHILE trade ministers stopped short of launching a new round of trade talks in Seattle last week, Australian ministers still claimed a victory of sorts for future negotiations on reducing agricultural subsidies.
Anti-World Trade Organisation protesters stole the limelight, but ultimately it was the ministers themselves who led to the demise of new trade negotiations.
Some blamed a fundamental breakdown in trust, particularly between developing countries and the west.
Others blamed the host nation for its inflexibility, pushing an agenda aimed at domestic interests rather than those of the WTOs 135 member nations.
While others blamed conference organisers, the European Union or sheer lack of time to get through the massive agenda.
Demonstrators claimed victory upon hearing no agreement had been reached, but their showboating provided nothing more than a mere distraction.
“You cant blame the protestors outside. You can blame the people – ourselves – inside,” said WTOs director-general, Mr Mike Moore, immediately after the meeting.
Australias Trade Minister Mr Mark Vaile put the most optimistic spin on the failure. The talks, he said, simply ran out of time.
Mr Vaile told The Age newspaper that the Australian contingent had wrapped up a deal for future negotiations on reducing agricultural subsidies and protection.
The draft text stops short of Australias wish list, but it is seen as being close enough.
Previously scheduled WTO talks on agriculture and services will begin again in January, but it remains to be seen how co-operative the European Union will be away from the limelight of a broad negotiating round.
A text drafted by Singapores Trade Minister, Mr George Yeo, calls for targets to be set for substantial and progressive reductions in agricultural support and protection, to be settled by 2002.
According to The Age, the negotiations would include the broadest possible liberalisation of market access, substantial reductions in domestic support and, on the most controversial issue, substantial reductions in all forms of export subsidies.
But Mr Dan Kleckner, president of the American Farm Bureau, warned the wording of the text provided too much “wiggle room” for the EU, after Australia and the USA backed down in demands that the agenda specify the elimination of export subsidies as the main aim of the round.
As a trade-off, the EU and Japan agreed to drop their demand for the “multifunctionality” of agriculture to be included in the text – as long as future negotiations take into account non-trade concerns such as the environment, food security and the economic viability and development of rural areas.
But if Australia needed any further evidence that it still has a long way to go before achieving “a level playing field” in agricultural, it only had to listen to the after-conference comments of EU Farm Commissioner Mr Franz Fischler.
Mr Fischler made it clear that any concessions the EU discussed in Seattle were now off the negotiating table because of the failure of the round.
“Theres no commitment at all and therefore there is nothing on the table,” he said.
Negotiations on agriculture to be launched in the New Year would start from “the very beginning”, although the ideas discussed at Seattle would “not disappear”, he said.
But the factor that is expected to force the EU to eventually make concessions on farming ironically comes from its own doing rather than any pressure exerted by the United States or the Australian-led Cairns Group of “fair trading” nations.
According to analysts, the EUs plans to take in a number of central and eastern European countries early in the next century make reform of the EUs Common Agricultural Policy essential.