Prague, 13 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said he hopes this week's meeting in Hong Kong will be able to wrap up last year's Doha round of development talks by clearing the way for a global free-trade agreement by the end of next year.
"I think everyone agrees that we must use this ministerial conference to advance the negotiations from where we are -- that is, the interim agreements which we reached in July last year. And this interim agreement has taken us roughly 50 percent of the way toward completing the negotiation," Lamy said.
Lamy said a global free-trade agreement will help alleviate poverty. But he admitted there is a chance that an accord will not be reached in Hong Kong.
"In areas such as agriculture, industrial goods, services, trade rules, and development issues, we have a historic opportunity to bring about greater equity in the global trading system -- to generate economic growth, stability, and to alleviate poverty," he said. "We have a chance to better align global rules on trade with those on environment. We have a chance to make our trading rules more relevant to the realities of the 21st century. Should we not succeed, all of this will be lost. So the stakes are very high for all of us."
As the conference opened today, serious doubts remained about whether ministers from the 149 member countries in the WTO would be able or willing to make the kind of compromises needed to further reduce trade barriers.
Since the Doha round, agriculture has been a major stumbling block. Developing nations accuse the United States, the European Union, and other more prosperous economies of refusing to make deep enough cuts to agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies. The developing countries argue that their own farmers do not have a chance to compete against subsidized farming -- or when Western markets are blocked by protective tariffs.
The G-20, a Brazil-led group of 20 developing countries, said in a statement today that a draft deal on slashing farm tariffs in rich countries must be struck by April if the global pact is to be concluded on time. The group also called on ministers at the Hong Kong WTO conference to agree on an immediate freeze in the use of farm export subsidies and to set a date for their outright elimination.
But U.S. farmers groups say progress toward opening agricultural markets can only be made if Europe and Brazil stop "posturing" and start proper negotiations.
Business leaders in Europe, like Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, have singled out France as the EU country that must do more to reduce farm subsidies and protective tariffs. Philippe de Buck van Overstraeten, the secretary-general of the European business group UNICE, agrees that the EU as a whole must move forward to cut tariffs.
But EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said the EU will not change its offer of an average 46 percent cut in farm tariffs without counteroffers from developing nations to reduce their own trade barriers on manufactured goods and services.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said developing countries should get preferential treatment. "China thinks solving the problems of developing countries' growth should be the main concern of the meeting [in Hong Kong]," Qin said. "Special benefits and preferential policies should be given to developing countries, and certain development policies should be maintained. China is supportive of reaching an agreement during the meeting on this issue."
Outside the Hong Kong convention center, protesters like Walden Bello complained about what they say are vested corporate interests within the WTO. "Ten years of the WTO has brought nothing but more poverty, more inequality, economic stagnation throughout many parts -- throughout most of the developing world," Bello said. "This is not an institution that promotes development. This is an institution that promotes corporate trade, promotes corporate profit, and that promotes destruction of the environment. It is an antipeople organization."
In his opening remarks today, Lamy said every government delegation needs to take home something from the trade negotiations. He urged the delegates to stop squabbling and to start serious negotiations on a new deal to break down global trade barriers.
"Repeating well-known positions, using negotiators' language, refusing to understand the reasons of counterparts, avoiding any risks -- including political risks -- will get us nowhere. On the other hand, taking a bit of risk -- calculated risk -- will mean a chance for improved rules, for a level playing field for free and fair trade. In short, the best chance for development. And development is and will remain the backbone of the Doha round," Lamy said.
Several dozen protesters who managed to get into the lecture hall stood up with signs and shouted antiglobalization slogans through most of Lamy's opening speech. The incident created a turbulent atmosphere within the convention center. That mood is expected to continue during the closed-door trade talks during the week of debate ahead.