Monday, Dec 29, 2003
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By Sushma Ramachandran
These sources point out that it will also take some time to commence formal negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva though informal consultations have been continuing even after the Cancun ministerial conference failed to reach any conclusion. The trade negotiating committee will have to appoint a new presiding official and sub-committees will also have to be reconstituted, now that the WTO General Council has had its first meeting in the middle of this month. Subsequently, the process of negotiations will begin in each sector. Given the wide divergence in views, as was evident at the Cancun conference last September, it is expected that it would take several detailed rounds of talks before any real progress can be achieved.
A more important factor in the way of a quick resolution is that elections are scheduled in India as well as the U.S. during 2004. The U.S. has always been a key player in the WTO and India has re-emerged as a leader among developing countries ever since the Doha ministerial conference. In the case of India, the Commerce and Industry Minister, Arun Jaitley, is already being inducted as a key campaign strategist for the Bharatiya Janata Party though a decision has yet to be taken on the timing of the polls. In case, as is widely expected, the elections are advanced to around April or May next year, it is not likely that Mr. Jaitley would have much time for discussing strategy at the WTO in the next few months. Neither would the Government like to make any commitments on sensitive issues like agriculture and tariffs prior to the general elections. Even in case elections are held as scheduled in September or October 2004, official sources point out that the Government would hesitate before making any offers in the interim period at the WTO.
Similarly, the U.S. administration would not be in a position to make any concessions in the election year as the U.S. President, George Bush, would probably, it is felt, prefer to take a tough stance on agriculture at a time when the critical beef industry is hit by fears of the "mad cow" disease. Agriculture had become a major bone of contention between the North and the South at the Cancun conference as the U.S. and the European Union were not prepared to offer a time-bound programme for subsidy reduction while the developing countries were, in turn, not in favour of cutting import tariffs on food products.
The Doha Development round of trade negotiations was launched in November 2001 after the fourth ministerial conference in Doha, Qatar. At that time, it was agreed that negotiations on most issues including agriculture would have to be completed by the end of December 2004. Sources here now feel that the WTO members would like to hold a ministerial conference in Hong Kong during 2004 to take stock of the situation prior to the deadline for the Doha round of talks.
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