WTO: herding cats is childs-play

News today that the World Trade Organisation is having another go at securing any sort of positive result from the Doha round of trade negotiations.

For the record, and as I’ve intimated previously, I do not envy these people their jobs. I’m sure the money is good, and I’m sure there is some heady power on hand, but I still would not like to do it. The job:

The trade body issued a lengthy proposal in Geneva laying out possible compromises by 150 countries involved in the trade talks, which officials said was aimed at breaking a deadlock on myriad trade issues that have eluded compromise since last summer.

Key words: “lengthy” and “150 countries” – and that is only after getting a handful of principal countries to agree. Ratification by 150?

Intransigence is another appropriate word:

The Bush administration reacted cautiously to the new document, which calls on the United States to lower its so-called trade-distorting farm subsidies to a range of $13 billion to $16.5 billion a year. The last U.S. offer in the talks was to lower them to $17 billion a year. In 2005 the United States paid out $19.7 billion in farm subsidies, a figure that fell in 2006 to $12 billion as food prices rose. But Americans say that, historically, they have been much higher.

The proposed reduction in farm subsidies is likely to be opposed by American farmers, even though the numbers are in the range of what subsidies have been in the last couple years. But American farmers worry that the need for subsidies could rise if world food prices fall in future years.

“Compromise” is the final word:

Last summer discussions were suspended outright when Europe and the United States refused to lower their farm barriers beyond what was being demanded by the developing world.

Efforts to restart the talks, most recently among the United States, Europe, Brazil and India last month in Potsdam, Germany, ended in discord, with Schwab accusing India and Brazil of backpedaling on what they had been willing to offer in terms of lower barriers to farm and industrial products from the West.

Many trade officials involved in the talks, speaking anonymously, say that India and Brazil are fearful of lowering their trade barriers on industrial goods because of a concern that China will move in and wipe out their new industries, much the way Chinese competition has hurt manufacturing in the West.

Schwab used tough language toward India and Brazil last month, charging that their trade barriers were hurting the poorest 60 or 70 countries of the world, many in Africa, more than they were hurting the rich countries.

India and Brazil countered angrily that the United States was keeping its own subsidies of farm products high. Some officials said that India and Brazil had been prepared to lower their tariff barriers but decided against it because of what they viewed as intransigence in Europe and the United States.

Will this work? Honestly, no. Probably not. For a start, the Bush administration can hardly afford to piss off the GOP base further. Cheney may be happy with 13% approval ratings, but he must be the only one. Even Republicans aren’t that out of touch with reality. New French president Sarkozy’s belief that pigeons are for putting cats among will also not help – in the near-term, at least – EU cohesion. And that still leaves 130-odd countries, including Brazil, India and China. Compared to this, cats herd themselves.


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