Vol. 5 Num 549 Mon. December 12, 2005  

WTO to meet in Hong Kong with little hope of success

The World Trade Organisation meets in Hong Kong this week with little hope of forging a compromise between the European Union and the United States on farm subsidies that would in turn pave the way for an overall global trade accord.

Expectations for the Hong Kong meeting have been downgraded as preparatory talks failed to make progress on the key sticking point -- global free trade in agriculture in return for free trade in industrial goods and services.

The main protagonists -- the EU, US, India, Brazil and Japan -- have all come up with proposals in the run-up to the ministerial talks that open Tuesday but they have been unable to break the deadlock.

Falling back to well prepared positions, they are now stressing instead that the talks should at least reach some sort of agreement to help the less developed, poorest countries get the benefit of freer trade.

It is hoped such a deal would prevent a repeat of the debacle at the previous WTO ministerial meeting in the Mexican resort of Cancun in 2003, which ended in acrimony.

A political compromise in Hong Kong would also keep alive the so-called Doha Round of free trade negotiations, launched in Qatar in 1996, and maintain hopes the round could be concluded next year as planned with a global free trade agreement.

The build-up to the Hong Kong talks has been marked by bitter exchanges and finger-pointing, and growing calls for the European Union to offer bigger cuts in the huge subsidies it gives to its farmers.

The EU commission has offered a range of tariff cuts between 35 and 60 percent, with the average EU agriculture duty cut by about half, from 22.8 to 12.2 percent. The EU says the offer is final.

The United States meanwhile is pressing for reductions of 55 to 90 percent.