Ministers Limber Up For WTO Subsidies Battle

8 September, 2003
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By Guy de Jonquieres, Frances Williams and John Authers in Cancun
Published: September 9 2003 22:38 | Last Updated: September 9
2003 22:38

Ministers from the World Trade Organisation's 146 members on Wednesday enter a bruising battle over the future of global agricultural liberalisation that is expected to be crucial to prospects for progress in the stalled Doha world trade round.

Battle lines were being drawn in the Mexican seaside resort of Cancun on Tuesday, as large farm exporting countries and developing nations planned a concerted drive for deep cuts in rich countries' trade barriers and $300bn ($271bn, 190bn pounds) annual farm subsidy programmes.

Breaking the two-year deadlock over farm trade reform is widely seen as the linchpin of the five-day meeting and an acid test of rich countries' pledges to make the Doha talks a "development" round.

Among the protagonists co-ordinating their strategies on Tuesday were the Australian-led Cairns Group of 18 food exporting nations and a recently formed alliance of 20 developing countries led by Brazil, China, India and South Africa.

The two groups agreed on Tuesday to join forces to push for faster reforms by the US and the European Union.

The Cairns Groups and the Group of 20 want the Cancun meeting to set a firm date for eliminating all forms of export subsidy and big reductions in trade-distorting domestic support. However, they differ over how far poorer countries should have to open their markets.

The meeting is also the focus for several thousand activists gathering to promote a wide variety of causes, including economic development, environment and human rights.

Some campaigners have vowed to reduce the meeting to a stalemate, claiming they have persuaded poorer countries to oppose trade liberalisation. Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South, which advises several developing countries on WTO tactics, said failure to agree in Cancun would be the best possible outcome.

However, more mainstream groups such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and ActionAid are taking a more positive stance, saying elimination of barriers and subsidies by the US, the EU and Japan is essential to global economic development.

The meeting faces possible disruption today when several thousand Mexican peasants and other demonstrators plan to march to the convention centre, defying tight military security and two metal fences around the centre of Cancun.

Although goals for this week's meeting have been scaled back because of repeated slippages in the Doha talks, ministers will seek to hammer out an overall framework for the negotiations and to set fresh deadlines.

They will also have to decide whether to keep to plans to complete the round by the end of next year. Many trade negotiators believe that even if progress is made in Cancun, the deadline will be hard to meet.


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