Warning that global trade talks risk failure, a broad group of nations including India, Brazil and Australia urged fellow WTO members Friday to refocus on the "core" issue of farm trade at negotiations that have spent more time discussing aid proposals for the world's poorest countries. However, the issue of aid and development yielded the first sign of concrete progress from the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong, with negotiators reaching agreement on duty-free, quota-free access for imports from least developed countries, Indian and Indonesian officials said. The breakthrough ended an impasse over the issue that delayed progress in other areas. Developing country members threw their support behind the proposal, accepting the limited exemptions for duty-free, quota-free access insisted on by some WTO nations, including Japan, the U.S. and Switzerland.
"I think its acceptable to all developed and developing countries," Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu told reporters. With the six-day conference entering its fourth day, members of the Group of 20 leading developing nations and the Cairns group of major food exporters issued a strong statement urging the EU and United States to open their markets to more farm imports.
"It is time for them to display leadership," said the groups, which represent 27 nations and more than half the world's population. "Hong Kong will be a lost opportunity" unless progress is made on reducing agricultural trade barriers, the statement said. The G-20 is led by India and Brazil, while the Cairns group includes major agricultural powers Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Many of the 149 countries participating in WTO talks in Hong Kong this week, meant to conclude trade negotiations launched in 2001 in Doha, Qatar, have accused the EU of blocking progress by refusing to make bigger cuts in its farm tariffs and subsidies. Developing countries say those trade barriers block access to wealthier nations' markets and threaten poor farmers' livelihoods.
Negotiators have been trying to salvage the Hong Kong talks from a collapse, by turning their focus to trade of manufactured goods and services, the other two key areas covered in the talks. But overnight talks on liberalizing manufacturing trade made no progress, a U.S. trade official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
A U.S. proposal for higher cuts in industrial tariffs for developed nations and lower ones for the developing ones has found support from the EU and Japan but met resistance among leading developing countries, namely India, Brazil and Argentina.
Top EU negotiators also reported no real progress on services and industrial trade, but that delegates were making small advances on farm trade, without being more specific.
Delegates expressed frustration with the limited progress after four days of talks, with the meeting due to wrap up on Sunday.
Mexico's secretary of economy, Sergio Garcia de Alba, said the WTO talks have become more of a "gripe session" than a negotiation meeting.
He said that the U.S., EU, Japan and other rich nations sent delegates who weren't allowed to be flexible enough to make deals at the six-day meeting, which ends Sunday, reports the AP. I.L.