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Trade talks break down over protection for poor farmers

31 July 2008

by Bill Bowder

THE Doha trade talks, which started long before the present food and energy crises, and which are aimed at regulating trade between rich and developing countries, broke down on Tuesday amid accusations that the West had been too “greedy”. But the EU and the United States singled out India and China as refusing to move on protective tariffs.

The EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, said that the failure was “collective”. “In the end, we tripped up over the level of a trigger for a single trade-restraint measure [protecting Indian and Chinese farmers from rising imports], a rather small gap in figures, in which an irresistible force met an immovable object in the negotiating room, and I’m afraid the talks eventually broke down after all this time.”

The deputy head of the US mission to the Doha talks in Geneva, David Shark, said that the actions of India and China had “thrown the entire Doha round into the gravest jeopardy of its nearly seven-year life”. The talks were aimed at making savings of £65 billion in tariffs annually.

Nevertheless, church-backed campaigns, aid agencies, and Third World groups, which had urged caution or even outright opposition to the deal, said that no deal was better than a bad deal. They had warned developing countries not to open their markets to further access unless the West dropped its own agricultural subsidies. Developing countries should have kept the right to put up tariff barriers to protect their weaker markets. The deal would have forced developing countries to allow schools, health, and water to be privatised.

“In the end, the ambition that has been driving these talks since the Doha round was launched in 2001 became too much, and the aggressive push by the rich countries, led by the US and the EU, for more trade liberalisation at a time of global crises of food and fuel, was too blatant for developing countries to stomach,” the Stop the New Round Coalition said in a statement on Wednesday.

“No deal is better than a bad deal, when development is at stake,” Christian Aid’s senior economic-justice adviser, Matthew Coghlan, said on Wednesday. “The talks were supposed to result in a deal that would help poorer countries develop through trade. Central to the collapse was the failure to agree to a generous Special Safeguard Mechanism, which would have enabled developing countries to impose or raise tariffs to protect their poor and vulnerable farmers from surges of agricultural imports,” it said.

There was widespread fear that, unless action was taken to begin new talks, food and energy prices could climb higher as countries sought to secure their own food supplies at the cost of international trade.

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