Malta: Commonwealth summit opens with delegates intending to push for more even world trade

A Commonwealth summit opens Friday, with wealthy nations, such as Britain, and developing former colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia intending to send a message to next month's world trade talks that it is time for poorer countries to draw greater benefits from global markets.

Complaints about human rights problems, including in Commonwealth member Uganda, will also get an airing at the three-day closed-door summit on this Mediterranean island, officials said Thursday.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, and leaders of Canada and Australia as well as 50 other Commonwealth members, were gathering at a resort hotel on Malta, a former British colony which last year joined the European Union.

The Commonwealth's top official, Secretary-General Don McKinnon, told reporters Thursday after two days of foreign ministers' discussions here that the developing world expected a better deal out of the so-called Doha Round of World Trade Organizations negotiations, which begin Dec. 13 in Hong Kong.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, speaking to business leaders at a Commonwealth forum here on Thursday, urged EU negotiators to make concessions on agriculture at the Doha Development Round, named after the Qatari capital where the talks began in 2001.

"Clearly European Union negotiators are in a difficult position," Clark said. "European Union member states have been unwilling to do more. But it is hard to see how the Doha Round can succeed unless they do."

She was speaking as EU negotiators in Brussels agreed on a landmark overhaul of its sugar subsidy program, cutting prices by 36 percent, to likely strengthen the EU's hand in the WTO talks.

A WTO challenge by Australia, Brazil and Thailand had forced the EU to revise its subsidy system.

But the price cuts angered trade groups and officials from Caribbean sugar producers many of them Commonwealth countries which had called for cuts of no more than 19 percent and wanted generous compensation.

Tariff regimes over other agricultural products, especially bananas, have long divided the EU and the WTO.

The sugar deal boosts aid to farmers and industry to ease the pain of the cut in prices and quotas. Under the old system, they benefited from generous EU subsidies and stiff import tariffs. EU sugar prices are more than three times higher than the global market rate.

Guyana said that Blair earlier this week told Caribbean leaders in London he would work to find ways to cushion the EU sugar reform.

"What we have always said is there must be some kind of compensatory effect," McKinnon, who is from New Zealand, said when asked at a news conference about the sugar deal.

Since the Commonwealth club includes roughly a third of the world's population, any consensus about access to global markets that shapes up in Malta could impact on the Hong Kong talks, reported AP. P.T.

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