WTO Headed for Debacle in Hong Kong?

The lack of more definite agreements in the recently-concluded July council meeting raises the possibility of yet another collapse in the forthcoming WTO talks.

By Sonny Africa
IBON Features
Posted by Bulatlat.com

Gloom settled on negotiators at the World Trade Organization (WTO) as its July General Council Meeting ended with the failure to reach key agreements ahead of the upcoming 6th ministerial to be held in Hong Kong in December.

Agriculture continued to be the main hurdle to the talks, as the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (EU) remained in a deadlock over their massive farm subsidies, with neither willing to concede even an inch to the other.

Outgoing Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi, in his final report as Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) chair, summed up the situation as “disappointing but not disastrous” and insisted that “the picture remains a mixed one overall.”

The lack of more definite agreements (“first approximations”) on the so-called Doha work program– agriculture, non-agricultural market access (NAMA), services and “development issues” – raises the possibility of yet another collapse in negotiations similar to what happened in past WTO ministerials in Seattle (1999) and Cancun (2003).

Negotiators now hope to use the Hong Kong ministerial to adopt the set of rules (”modalities”) needed to reach a final Doha Round agreement by 2007.

Still, Panitchpakdi tried to put a positive spin on the failure, claiming that “there has been constructive engagement and some positive signals and we have narrowed differences, even if we have not resolved them.” He added, “The situation we are in makes Hong Kong harder but not impossible.”

Growing popular protest

For activists who gathered at the parallel General Council of Peoples, however, the stalemate was welcome news. Unlike the WTO negotiators, the nearly-200 participants from non-government organizations and social movements ended their meeting with a clear development consensus: derail the Hong Kong Ministerial, stop the corporate trade agenda and promote an alternative global trading system that promotes people’s interests over those of corporations.

The Council closely monitored events at the WTO meeting even as they remained wary, since progress on global trade talks inevitably involves setbacks. Even as unity against the WTO grows on the outside, internally the world’s most powerful governments are maneuvering within the Organization to ensure that their respective corporate interests are protected and their profits ensured.

While pointing to the need for “inside and outside strategies,” Tony Clarke of Canada-based Polaris Institute stressed the importance of “coordinated actions by the major social movements to put pressure on national governments in the build-up to Hong Kong.” Clarke added that it is not enough to have information, analyses and action, these need to be popularized to reach sectors most affected at the grassroots.

These mass mobilizations cannot come too soon, the People’s Council believes, since developed countries are already maneuvering within the WTO.

First World maneuvering

Regarding negotiations on NAMA, Goh Chien Yen of Malaysia’s Third World Network said that First World countries will likely succeed in getting an agreement on further trade liberalization in industrial goods. “Opposition from the developing countries is weak and doesn’t seem to be consolidating in the direction of strengthening,” he said.

The situation in NAMA talks contrasts with that of agriculture. In agriculture, rich countries such as the U.S., EU nations and Canada want to keep protecting their respective agriculture sectors, even from each other. In NAMA, the industrialized countries all have low industrial tariffs to begin with, and so have a uniform interest in dismantling high industrial tariff barriers in the developing countries.

There is a similar danger in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Although only 92 out of the 148 WTO-member countries have made commitments (“offers”) to liberalize their domestic services sectors, rich countries are clearly on the offensive in GATS, believes Marc Maes of Belgium’s 11.11.11, and “looking for ways to speed up the process.”

Alexandra Strickner of the Geneva-based Institute of Agricultural and Trade Policy (IATP) revealed that the GATS negotiating process would likely intensify after the August summer break “with almost weekly formal and informal meetings.” Strickner warned that not only GATS but also other negotiating processes will likely be “fast-tracked with less transparency and greater maneuvering” and that First World countries will likely “try very, very hard and move very, very quickly to get something defined by the Hong Kong ministerial.”

Strike three?

Developing countries oppose trade liberalization under the WTO because of the disastrous effect it has had on their domestic economies. Industries have been devastated, farmers driven off their land and jobs have been lost, all to ensure the mega-profits of transnational corporations. It is clear that trade liberalization has not improved the people’s welfare and this is why an increasing number have organized in protest against the WTO.

The WTO has already seen two dramatic upheavals in the collapse of talks at the Seattle and Cancun ministerials. A third breakdown is a very real possibility and would represent a clear victory for the people.

But the collapse of the December ministerial would not represent a decisive victory against corporate-led globalization. The reality is that the world’s largest corporations have a vast array of resources at their command to maintain their stranglehold over the global economy. Thus, the struggle against globalization – which has brought disastrous effects on people’s jobs, livelihood, and welfare worldwide – must persist even if the WTO talks in December falters. IBON Features /Posted by (Bulatlat.com)

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