The last chance to save the WTO – again!

The last chance to save the WTO – again!

Date: 2 September 2009

Once again, this week, trade ministers from around the world are meeting, this time in Delhi, with the stated aim of kick-starting stalled World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks. And yet again, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors concealing countries’ true negotiating positions.

Why is India hosting this meeting? Does it really want to finalise a Doha deal, or is it hurt by accusations that it scuppered the July 2008 talks and so it just wants to be seen to be ‘talking the talk’? What position will the Obama administration take? Rhetorically, it talks about the need to sign a deal and for countries to avoid protectionism, but it is under huge pressure at home as unemployment grows and the recession continues.

Meanwhile, Pascal Lamy (the WTO’s director-general) continues to tighten the negotiating screws, stating that only 20 per cent of issues remain to be resolved. Proposals have been circulated to speed-up the process, to ‘bank’ what has already been agreed, and to move on to look at timetabling issues with the hope that this will unblock the remaining issues. Quite rightly, groups of developing countries have strongly opposed this move which would ride rough-shod over their concerns.

Whatever the nuances of the particular discussions in Delhi, little has really changed in WTO negotiations in recent years. Farmers’ groups in the global south continue to be highly concerned about a deal that would see them battling against subsidised imports from the US and EU, and vulnerable to sudden, import surges which could wipe them out.

Meanwhile, trade unions and manufacturing interests, especially in emerging economies, remain fearful of significant reductions in tariffs that could stymie industrialising economies at a critical time in their development.

In the opposite corner, major corporations rail against a retreat into protectionism, while at the same time, doing all that they can to protect their profit-winning monopolies on intellectual property, patents and technological processes.

The WTO is locked into a make-believe world: a world where the global economic crisis has not shown-up the weakness of the de-liberalised, de-regulated free trade model. And a world where climate change doesn’t exist, and thus neither does the imperative to focus on local and regional, rather than global, trading links.

2009 is the ten year anniversary of the Battle of Seattle, the coming of age of the anti-globalisation movement. In Delhi, this week activists will be mobilising against the WTO and all that it stands for. Similar mobilisations will take place in Geneva in December when a formal WTO session will be held. And just this week, Zambia and Comoros refused to sign a damaging trade deal with the EU, indicating that small countries are not prepared to be pushed around.

Activists from all around the world are clear that no deal at the WTO is better than a bad deal. Let us hope that in Delhi, and in Geneva, these voices are heard.

Photo: Part of the gathering of 50,000 Indian farmers who rallied in Delhi against the WTO