Pressure builds on WTO nations to downgrade Hong Kong target

Original Publication Date: 
8 November, 2005

GENEVA (AFP) - Trading nations still deeply divided on key issues faced the prospect of a watered-down WTO ministerial conference next month in Hong Kong, where they are hoping to put together a framework deal to lower global trade barriers.

A former World Trade Organisation insider warned the 148 member states they would be wise to prepare a "Plan B" for the meeting but the WTO chief said no such thing was in the pipeline.

As trade negotiators met late into the night on Tuesday at the WTO's Geneva headquarters, key ministers cautioned that the goals for the December 13-18 ministerial conference may not be met.

The WTO members were discussing the outcome of a meeting in London Monday between Brazil, the European Union, India, Japan and the United States aimed at narrowing differences on trade in farm goods, industrial products and services, such as banking.

Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said WTO ministers might need to hold a "Hong Kong 2" in the early months of next year to make up lost ground.

"But if that happens, it doesn't mean lowering the ambition" of the overall WTO talks, he told journalists Tuesday.

India's Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath had also hinted earlier that the goals for Hong Kong may have to be changed, leaving even more to be done next year.

In Monday's London meeting, the European Union appeared to have overcome resistance from India and Brazil to tackling these issues until the farm controversy is largely settled.

But Amorim had stern words for the EU on Tuesday.

"Sometimes I wonder if some of the objectives pursued by the EU are truthful or just a pretext not to move on agriculture," he said.

He also said he feared that rich countries were "putting the bar so high" in order to lay the blame for a possible failure on poor countries.

Amorim said he expected WTO chief Pascal Lamy to make an assessment Tuesday of what member states could achieve in Hong Kong, where they still hope to approve the outlines of a wide-ranging trade accord under the Doha round of trade liberalization talks, launched in 2001.

Lamy has previously said negotiators must clear at least two-thirds of the issues ahead of the conference, but that now seems a tall order.

In an interview Tuesday with the British newspaper The Guardian, the WTO director general chastised trading nations for "brinkmanship."

"There is a risk of failure and there is no Plan B .. but I do think people realise that failure would be terrible and ... are convinced that is has to be a success," he said.

The five heavyweight members said they had narrowed their differences in London but acknowledged that gaps remained.

"This is all about working toward a consensus. It's not easy," US Trade Representative Rob Portman said. "It's about all of us making tradeoffs."

WTO members launched the Doha Round with the aim of boosting living standards in developing countries. They originally intended to complete the round in 2004 but later set a 2006 target after repeatedly failing to overcome disputes.

Analyst Sergio Marchi, Canada's former trade ambassador who also led the WTO's ruling General Council, said members would be "shortsighted" not to start preparing a "Plan B" for Hong Kong.

Marchi suggested setting out "mileposts" over the first three to six months of 2006.

"It would need to be based on the reality of what happened in Hong Kong, rather than public relations gimmickry that says: 'Ministers have directed that we shall think very seriously about this,'" Marchi told AFP.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said Tuesday he was "wary" of shifting the Hong Kong target.

"The moment you start reducing expectations, you risk introducing complacency," Mandelson told journalists.

Developing countries, which accuse rich nations of using subsidies and tariffs to skew the global farm trade against them, have been suspicious of cuts offered by the United States and the EU, saying they lack real bite.

Mandelson said that parallel talks, particularly on industrial goods and trade in services such as banking, "have been held at the gate" by countries that have put too great an emphasis on agriculture.