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Crucial Doha Round Meeting Begins Today

by Ulrika Lomas, for, Brussels

11 April 2007

There is little optimism that a crucial World Trade Organization Doha Round meeting beginning today will overcome political opposition in the US and among some EU member states, notably France, and there is talk of limiting the objectives of the Doha Round.

This week's meeting, in New Delhi, is between the US, the EU, India and Brazil, and could be the prelude to a meeting of all 150 WTO members. But after a preparatory meeting last month, also in New Delhi, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said: “Time is not on our side ... the multilateral process of negotiations must therefore kick-in at full speed”.

Mr Lamy said that since February negotiations have resumed in full mode in all negotiating groups, with members also working bilaterally, touching base and checking the impact of possible compromise numbers on products of their major export interests and main import sensitivities.

He said that there is also renewed engagement and support at the highest political level: "The US, EC, Brazil and India held bilateral contacts in London and Geneva at Ministerial level. I had separate meetings with the four ministers and I was informed that some progress has been made in testing hypothesis, approaches and formulae."

India and Brazil, with China in the wings (a group known as BRIC) have led the developing nations in demanding more agricultural market access than the US and the EU are prepared to give; and those two have their own issues over tariff cuts and subsidies.

"These talks are timely and important," saus EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson about this week's meeting. "If we fail, Doha's prospects for this year will be lost."

Success now seems hardly possible given that the US President's 'fast-track' trade treaty authority will expire in June, and a Democratic Congress seems likely to demand an unacceptably high price for its renewal. And French politicians facing a presidential election in May are almost sure to veto any further agricultural market opening.

Miracles have taken place before in WTO negotiations, but absent a miracle, it's possible that negotiators will focus on less contentious aspects of the Doha Round which have already been agreed, leaving the pricklier tariff reductions for a future round.

Mr Lamy will not want the efforts of the last three years to collapse in a heap of feathers, but he says that everything is taking place at too slow a pace: "Time is not on our side and many WTO members are becoming impatient. The multilateral process of negotiations must therefore kick-in at full speed, and the Chairpersons of various negotiation groups must come into the centre stage. We need to speed up the process so as to grasp the window of opportunity which closes at the end of June with the expiry of the US Trade Promotion Authority."

Since Doha negotiations collapsed in Hong Kong last year, Lamy has ceaselessly shuttled around the world in an attempt to get major participants to show enough flexibility to allow the talks to restart, and a breakthrough seemed to take place at the Davos Forum in late January.

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