A BREAKTHROUGH in agriculture talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) proved elusive on Tuesday as one fragile deal threatened to unravel and problems flared up in other areas.
Trade diplomats, speaking a day after parallel talks in industrial goods revealed continuing wide disagreement over the size of tariff cuts, said the differences could make it hard to bring in ministers next month to clinch an overall deal.
Tuesdayâ€™s round of agriculture talks, the last before WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy meets all 151 ambassadors on Thursday to discuss the next steps before the proposed meeting of ministers, overran and was due to resume later in the day.
The ministers, preceded by senior officials, would start the â€œhorizontalâ€ process of trade-offs between farm and industrial goods that would open the way to agreement in the Doha round.
â€œA number of questions are being raised as to the chances of success of a horizontal in these circumstances,â€ Indiaâ€™s WTO ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia told reporters.
The impact of soaring food prices also came up on Tuesday, with the G-33 group of developing food importers, the G-10 group of rich food importers and Japan criticising some exporters for urging cuts in import tariffs while restricting exports through duties and other measures, participants in the meeting said.
Record food prices have prompted several countries to limit exports, with for example Argentina imposing a tax on soy exports and India, China, Egypt and Vietnam banning all or certain types of rice.
The Doha round, launched in late 2001 to boost the world economy and help developing countries export more, has floundered for years but intensive talks over the past nine months have suggested a deal was within reach.
Negotiators have worked on an array of complex technical issues to leave ministers simple choices on the big political questions of tariff and subsidy cuts in industry and agriculture.
A big stumbling block has been a proposal to shield politically sensitive farm products from the full force of tariff cuts.
In the last few weeks six major food exporters and importers â€” Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Japan and the United States â€” came up with a plan.
Top U.S. and EU officials hailed it as a breakthrough, although the chairman of the agriculture talks, New Zealandâ€™s WTO ambassador Crawford Falconer, described it as fragile.
The six have yet to convince other WTO members of its merits, and on Tuesday they disagreed about the explanatory notes they were asked to provide, with Australia having second thoughts about some aspects of it, participants said.
A recent U.S. proposal to limit another waiver to tariff cuts sought by developing countries for what they term special products also came under fire.
â€œComing out with new but extreme contributions at this late stage of the negotiations is indeed discouraging,â€ Indonesiaâ€™s WTO ambassador Gusmardi Bustami, said in a statement on behalf of the G-33 countries, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
Bustami called for further intensive negotiations adding, â€œno shortcuts or an imaginary text… can bridge these gapsâ€.
â€œIf you donâ€™t have a solution to these problems, donâ€™t call the ministers,â€ Switzerlandâ€™s WTO ambassador Luzius Wasescha said, summarising the views of key developing countries.
Big disagreements also remain in the treatment of tropical products and preferential treatment by the EU of exports from former European colonies.
The differences will make it hard for Falconer to draft a revised negotiating text, a vital prequisite for the meeting of ministers that has been talked about for the second half of May. â€” Reuters.