By Richard Waddington and Robert EvansReuters
November 12, 2002
World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Supachai Panitchpakdi says he is confident year-end deadlines for deals on issues dearest to developing countries can be met, boosting global free trade talks. "I think we can build up momentum, we are moving in that direction," he told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday before flying to Australia for a trade ministers' meeting.
In particular, Supachai said he noted "real urgency" in the search for an accord on access to cheap medicines for poor countries facing health emergencies such as AIDS. The drugs issue, together with the question of easier terms for poorer countries to help them adapt to tough trading rules, must be resolved by the end of December if world trade talks are to stay on track to conclude by the end of 2004.
The talks were launched last November in Doha, Qatar, and development was formally put at the centre of the agenda. The real bargaining is only just beginning.
Apart from the year-end deadline on drugs and so-called "special and differential treatment" for poorer states, the WTO's 145 member countries must agree by March 2003 on the framework for negotiations on thorny issues like farm trade. "The end-year package, if we can conclude it, will give us momentum for the March deadline in areas such as agriculture and services," Supachai said.
But the former Thai deputy prime minister, who took over the WTO helm from New Zealand's Mike Moore in September, said member states must not let themselves be side-tracked by a flurry of regional and bilateral free trade agreements. "We really have to be careful what we are getting into because it is all becoming a bit confusing," he said. Many of the bilateral deals involve the United States.
WORKING WITH CRITICS
Supachai, the first developing country official to head the WTO or its predecessors, also said he would work more closely with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), many of whom brand the Geneva-based body as a servant of the rich states.
He noted some NGOs were highly suspicious of moves to open up trade in services such as water, health and education as well as the financial sectors like banks and insurance, all part of the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS). "Some NGOs...fear that we will be easing the transnationals into the poor countries' economies. But this is not so, this is not the intention of the WTO," he said.
The GATS is one of the top targets for anti-globalisation protests around this week's meeting in Australia. But Supachai said the pact was "probably something that is not properly understood". It was voluntary and "would not touch on the domestic rules of countries that did not want it".
Supachai said he doubted the meeting of trade ministers in Sydney on Thursday and Friday would produce any decisions on the negotiations. "It will be mainly stocktaking," he said, noting that only around a quarter of the countries in the WTO -- where the European Union speaks for all 15 of its member states -- would be represented.
On agriculture, which diplomats and analysts see as the key to success in the Doha Round, Supachai said the issues, although difficult, were not new and states could resolve them. "We may be seeing some delays, but I still think that before we come to the deadline we will see progress," he said.
The EU, the world's top agricultural goods exporter, has been accused by other farm produce exporters such as the United States, Brazil and Australia of dragging its feet. They have put forward plans for the elimination of all subsidies underpinning agricultural exports. The EU has yet to come back with a detailed counter proposal.
Supachai said success in the trade round required the greatest possible commitment from all states and for this reason the gathering pace of separate deals was worrying. The United States has been particularly active since Congress voted earlier this year to restore the president's powers to negotiate trade pacts which can subsequently only be accepted or rejected by the legislature, but not amended.
Singapore hopes to wrap up a free trade agreement with Washington this week, the first ever between the United States and an Asian country. U.S. officials say they want to sign one with Morocco and indicate Egypt could be next, while efforts are boosted to conclude a giant trade pact linking North, Central and South America by 2005. At the same time, the EU and the four-nation South American Mercosur have just relaunched a bid to conclude a treaty.
"My fear is that all these negotiations...will become more intensified next year when the bulk of the effort will have to be concentrated on the multilateral negotiating effort here (in Geneva)," Supachai said.
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