Queen to open Commonwealth summit dominated by trade issue

Original Publication Date: 
24 November, 2005
VALLETTA (AFP) - Queen Elizabeth II will open a 53-nation Commonwealth summit here likely to be dominated by developing countries' concerns over next month's WTO trade talks in Hong Kong.

Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon said the summit would "send a very, very strong message" to the United States, the European Union and Japan to drop tariff barriers around agricultural commodities and allow poor nations greater access to their markets.

"This is one issue that leaders will be very united on," said McKinnon, the top official of the loose association of mainly former British colonies, which represent 1.8 billion people and one-fifth of the world's trade.

Developing countries attending the biennial summit will urge British Prime Minister Tony Blair to press the European Union for further cuts in farm subsidies in World Trade Organisation talks in Hong Kong in three weeks' time.

Most Commonwealth states, which range from G8 members Britain and Canada to some of the world's poorest states like Cameroon, "are getting really angry at the lack of ambition" surrounding the negotiations.

The December 13-18 talks in Hong Kong are aimed at providing a blueprint for a new global trade deal which would lift millions of people out of poverty.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said in Brussels that other WTO members should "take a reality check" and give some ground by lowering tariffs on industrial goods and liberalising trade in services.

But McKinnon told journalists in Valletta: "There are too many people in either Geneva or Brussels saying that it's time a lot of developing countries lowered their expectations. I don't think they intend to lower their expectations."

The queen, as leader of the Commonwealth, will formally open the biennial gathering of her former subjects at 10:00 am (0900 GMT) at a ceremony in Valletta attended by more than 40 heads of state.

After a plenary session in the morning, the leaders will go into what officials are calling "retreat mode" for two days of informal discussions at an exclusive hotel on the north of the island.

Malta's Foreign Minister Michael Frendo said that, apart from trade, leaders would discuss issues ranging from closer cooperation in fighting terrorism to ideas of dealing with mass migration, with its often tragic consequences.