There was a small measure of progress at the WTO Hong Kong conference, but negotiators still see trade as an arm of politicsby Jack Thurston / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
To leaven the mood at the opening session of the WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong in mid-December, Pascal Lamy, the WTO’s newly installed director general, pulled a magic wand from his breast pocket. Progress has been so slow and the main protagonists dug in to such seemingly irreconcilable positions that Lamy, who has the unenviable task of brokering a final deal, could be forgiven for resorting to sorcery.
But if he had been looking for a prop to sum up the overall mood of the delegates and observers arriving in Hong Kong, Lamy might well have brandished a stethoscope. After the acrimonious walkout by developing countries at the last summit in Cancún in 2003, the main objective for the WTO this time around was survival. The diminishing of expectations to such a low level was profoundly depressing, particularly in a year when the British government threw the weight of its twin presidencies of the G8 and the EU behind the trade justice movement.
The good news is that the WTO did survive Hong Kong, and its 149 members agreed a text which includes a small measure of progress towards a final deal. The new text is less than spectacular, but everyone agreed to keep talking, and to hold a Hong Kong 2 in Geneva in the spring. The bad news is that there is an enormous amount still to do, and not much time in which to do it.
The EU delegation came to Hong Kong expecting the worst. In the late summer “bra wars,” Peter Mandelson had flunked his first major test as EU trade commissioner, and over the months that followed, the US consistently outmanoeuvred the EU in the build-up to Hong Kong. And if America’s multibillion-dollar cotton subsidies, so crippling to poor west African farmers, had made the US the villain at Cancún, it did not seem impossible that fortress Europe would carry the can for a potentially fatal breakdown at Hong Kong. This is because progress in agriculture, the sector of the world economy most heavily distorted by trade barriers and most important to developing countries, has become the prerequisite for progress in other areas like manufactured goods and services. Brazil, the world’s most competitive agricultural exporter and leader of the powerful G20 grouping of developing countries, recently turned its fire away from US cotton, corn and soybean subsidies and towards Europe’s farm tariffs.