WTO talks buckle in Cancun; obscure policies to blame

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SALEM, Ohio – The mood at the U.S. negotiating table was grim as World Trade Organization (WTO) talks collapsed Sunday, Sept. 14, but elsewhere protesters and developing countries were celebrating the collapse as a victory.

Singapore issues. The U.S. State Department said the biggest differences were the so-called Singapore issues of government procurement, trade facilitation, investment and competition (antitrust).

Delegates split on whether to immediately launch negotiations on these issues, initiated during the 1996 Singapore Ministerial.

The delegates never even reached the point of tackling the more divisive agricultural issues.

‘Can do’ vs. ‘won’t do.’ U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the underlying cause of the collapse was the inability of some developing countries to move from rhetoric to negotiating.

“Some countries will now need to decide whether they want to make a point or whether they want to make progress,” Zoellick said at a briefing after the collapse.

“Whether developed or developing, there were ‘can do’ and ‘won’t do’ countries here,” Zoellick said in a statement Sunday.

“The rhetoric of the ‘won’t do’ overwhelmed the concerted efforts of the ‘can do.'”

The larger lesson, he added, is that compromise requires a “serious willingness to focus on work, not rhetoric.”

Empty-handed. Zoellick said a number of countries appeared to consider the trade talks a “freebie,” meaning they could make their points, argue and not compromise.

“Now they’re going to face the cold reality of that strategy, coming home with nothing,” Zoellick said.

Still pushing free trade. The trade representative said the United States will push ahead with individual free trade agreements. In fact, he added, several ministers had approached him in Cancun to inquire about bilateral trade negotiations.

“We are going to keep opening markets one way or another,” Zoellick said.

Free trade of Americas. The collapse in WTO talks in Cancun, however, may influence the United State’s negotiations in the Free Trade of the Americas negotiations.

An advance meeting on those negotiations is scheduled for November in Miami.

Those negotiations could be hampered by the role Brazil and Argentina played in Cancun, Zoellick said.

The two South American countries led a group of developing countries that advanced an alternative WTO agricultural proposal that called for more concessions on subsidies from wealthy countries without offering access to their agriculture markets.

The U.S. State Department said the paper “amounted to a list of demands on wealthy countries without any real reciprocal offers to open their own markets.”

No peace clause. Negotiators also never got around to extending a provision of the 1994 WTO agriculture agreement called the “peace clause,” which is set to expire at the end of this year.

The peace clause prevents WTO challenges to agricultural subsidies under the 1994 agreement.

Whether the expiration will result in a flurry of WTO challenges to U.S. and European Union agricultural subsidies is not know, the state department said.

President Bush’s trade promotion authority to negotiate agreements, also known as “fast track,” will also expire in June 2005.

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