Who cares what happens in Qatar?

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A tiny country that juts into the Persian Gulf was the center of trade attention this month. And even if you’ve never heard of Qatar, it would be wise to pay attention to what transpired in its capital of Doha.

Foreign ministers and trade representatives from 144 member-countries of the World Trade Organization gathered in the Middle East with a single purpose that took more than five days to reach. Their task was to reach consensus on whether or not to hold a new rounds of international trade negotiations, the first round since the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) ended in 1994.

In other words, it took negotiators five days to agree to start talking.

Delegates are extremely optimistic that the new negotiations will be concluded by Jan. 1, 2005, considering that last round took eight years and included only 35 countries.

The events seem so far removed from Salem, Ohio, that it’s easy to tune them out. But U.S. farm policy no longer exists in a domestic vacuum, and multilateral trade agreements affect U.S. farm programs perhaps as much as a new farm bill. The World Trade Organization is sort of an economic United Nations.

The European Union, which is as big a player in these trade talks as the United States, will push for tinting the trade agreement green. “Trade policy needs to be accepted as a means to achieve sustainable development,” said EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy in a speech in Washington in June.

Europe wants this broader trade agenda, observes Ohio State ag economist Ian Sheldon, so it has more wiggle room to make concessions on agriculture. Considering the EU accounts for 90 percent of export subsidy expenditures, it will be on the hot seat and is looking for any valve to diffuse the heat. The European Union claims it is willing to talk about reducing export subsidies, but is unwilling to agree to elimination, as supported by the United States.

“Committing the European Union to brining its internal prices to the level of world prices is something which we cannot do in an international negotiation,” the EU’s Lamy said Nov. 5, just prior to the talks in Qatar.

Most Americans’ real concern is how to detect and remove “hidden subsidies” that allow a country to subsidize its products and sell them below market prices in the United States.

The new round will put market access, domestic supports and export subsidies on the table. What will not be included is what’s called the “precautionary principle,” which allows countries to say “in the interest of precaution we’re going to take this action.” That’s what the European Union used as its stick to bar its door from GMO crops, although the United States claimed such a principle is used without scientific evidence.

Trade negotiations, free trade agreements, sanitary and phytosanitary rules – the complexity of the issues is enough to make your head spin. But ignoring the issues is something no U.S. resident, particularly a farmer, can chance.

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