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Tuesday, February 18, 2003

No Light at the End of the Doha Tunnel

As world trade ministers fail to agree on plans to liberalise agricultural trade and make cheap medicines available to poor countries during a three-day meeting which ended in Tokyo last Sunday, the Economist asks whether the Doha round negotiations will drag on as previous ones have tended to do.

NEVER do today what can be put off till tomorrow. The trade ministers from 22 countries, whose three-day meeting in Tokyo ended on February 16th, managed to live down to their reputation for a reluctance to compromise—and enthusiasm for delay. Hardened trade negotiators are used to deadlines repeatedly missed, crisis talks at the eleventh hour, and second-best solutions. But the outcome of the Tokyo meeting was nevertheless disappointing for those hoping that the Doha round of trade negotiations, conducted under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), were going to be different.For a time it looked as if they were. When the round was launched in the Qatari capital in November 2001, the atmosphere was one of rapprochement between the rich countries and their poorer neighbours, and between those rich countries that had been at loggerheads on trade issues. The aftermath of the attacks of September 11th 2001, the war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan had combined to put the developing world at the top of the political agenda. The rich world appeared to recognise that poor countries needed to become full participants in the world economy—and needed help to do that.

Developing countries skilfully exploited this new attitude. They had resisted the idea of a new round of trade negotiations—many of them felt they had got a raw deal from the previous Uruguay round, which had, in the view of the poor countries, been heavily skewed in favour of the industrial world...........Perhaps they should have known better. Progress since the Doha meeting has been slow. Little headway has been made even on issues about which the arguments seem relatively minor...........The WTO will now try to bridge the gaps before the framework deadline at the end of March, but that will be a tall order. The current negotiating draft envisages sharp reductions in agricultural tariffs over five years, but it does not specify numerical limits on those duties. Those most enthusiastic proponents of free agricultural trade want an absolute tariff cap—25% is one figure mentioned. But the most heavily protectionist—Japan and the EU in particular—are horrified by the scale of tariff reductions proposed. Those who must now redraft the document have an unenviable job.Going to the wire is almost an article of faith for trade negotiators. With so much at stake, each country wants to be sure it has given away the absolute minimum needed to sew up a deal. But this is always a high-risk strategy, and especially so if some participants in the round are less than enthusiastic about the negotiations in the first place. In Doha, the developing countries showed that this time they are determined not to settle at any cost. Without some progress soon, the Doha round could be on the brink of collapse.
Source: The Economist

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