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WTO farming talks collapse in failure

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2003

CANCUN, Mexico - Talks designed to change the face of farming around the world collapsed Sunday amid differences between rich and poor nations, the second failure for the World Trade Organization in four years. Some poor nations celebrated what they called a victory against the West.

"It's over," said George Odour Ong'wen, a Kenyan delegate. "The differences were very wide, and it was impossible to close the gap."

Developing nations, many of which had banded together to play a key role in negotiations, wanted to end rich countries' agricultural subsidies. European nations and Japan were intent on pushing four new issues that many poor countries saw as a distraction.

In the end, it was the diverging agendas of 146 member countries that split delegates beyond the point of repair. Many poor countries accused the United States and Europe of trying to bully poor nations into accepting trade rules they didn't want.

"Trade ministers have been pressured, blackmailed," said Irene Ovonji Odida, a delegate from Uganda.

Many poorer nations took the collapse as a victory.

"The developing countries have come into their own . . . because they hung together," said Malaysia's minister for international trade and investment, Rafidah Aziz. "This has made it clear that developing countries cannot be dictated to by anybody."

Before the talks collapsed, delegates spent Sunday debating not the key changes to farming policy that they have spent much of the conference negotiating, but instead four proposals about foreign investment and competition.

Delegates said the Europeans agreed to back off on three of the proposals, but insisted they be granted one. South Korea insisted all four be taken up together, and African nations refused to negotiate on any of them, according to the Associated Press, citing an EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said given the irreconcilable differences, the meeting's chairman, Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, chose to end the meeting.

U.S. officials blamed what they said were countries more interested in flowery speeches than negotiations.

"Useful compromise among 148 countries requires a serious willingness to focus on work - not rhetoric - to attain the fine balance between ambition and flexibility," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said in a statement.

The failure was a major blow to the WTO, and called into question the organization's ability to reach a global trade treaty by the end of next year - a goal WTO members set for themselves at a meeting two years ago in Doha, Qatar.

"No one can feel satisfied with a failure," said Argentina's trade secretary, Martin Redrado.

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