Resume talks

Negotiations which have been going round and round the prickly Doha pear have got a fresh lease of life with the mini-ministerial meeting held in Delhi last week, deciding to kickstart the process in Geneva. The trade talks had been deadlocked for more than a year and it is to India’s credit that it took the initiative to break the impasse. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma took interest in bringing a representative group of countries together with an agenda to speed up the process. Since it was an informal platform the proceedings were not strictly a part of the eight-year-old negotiations. The Delhi consultations were more talks about talks than talks as such. The trade representatives of all countries will begin serious negotiations on substantive issues on September 14 and to that extent the Delhi meeting achieved a breakthrough.

These issues remain as substantive now as they were when the talks were suspended by WTO director-general Pascal Lamy in July last year. In the last one year they actually aggravated with the economic recession and consequent decline in the quantum of world trade forcing most countries to look for temporary solutions for immediate problems rather than pay attention to a long-term multilateral agreement. The political uncertainty in the US, which is the most important player in the Doha round, and in India, which has a major role as a representative of emerging countries, also slackened the process. But there seems to be better realisation now that the process cannot be indefinitely stalled. The differences among the developed countries, led by the US and Europe, and the developing ones led by China, India and Brazil, are as wide as ever. The issue of reducing high farm subsidies in the developed countries, the need to set up an effective safeguard mechanism in developing countries to deal with possible import surges, the link sought to be made between climate change and trade issues and anti-dumping measures are all areas of contention. It is doubtful whether the present deadline of 2010 for a final agreement will hold. Lamy’s optimism about it might be misplaced unless the developed world relaxes it hardline positions.

India should also take care to dispel the impression that it was acting under US pressure to call the Delhi meeting. Resumption of talks was in the interest of all countries but the interests clash when talks begin, and India should stick with its group.

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