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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 11: 99: Battle for Free Trade
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Saturday, 4 December, 1999, 13:36 GMT
WTO tarnished by Seattle failure
Arrest being made in Seattle One of the lingering images of the WTO's trip to Seattle

By Robert Pigott in Seattle

It has been a disastrous week for the World Trade Organisation.

This was supposed to be the day when a new era of free trade throughout the world was triumphantly born.

The battle for free trade
Instead people will remember a week of violent protest, tear gas, and rubber pellets.

Even inside the heavily guarded convention centre the demonstrations raised the stakes in the debate.

After such a public relations disaster on the streets, failure in the talks as well, seemed unthinkable.

Indeed on the last day the discussions seemed close to success.

We from developing countries were ... treated like delinquents
Clement Rohee, Guyana

The European Union made concessions on one of the chief sticking points, it's huge agricultural subsidies.

An agricultural package was agreed, but the EU did not believe it was getting enough in return.

The spokesman on trade for the socialist group of MEPs, Beryl McNally, said it was the EU that pulled the plug on the talks.

"The United States was too greedy" she said, "it was all take and no give.

"I can't believe that America's chief negotiator could have been so foolish to think we would accept it".

Child labour Outlawing child labour was one of many areas of dispute
But Ms Barshefsky blamed what she called the novelty and complexity of the issues being negotiated for the failure to agree.

They included such things as how far industrialised countries could insist on improvements in labour conditions in developing countries, how far measures to protect the environment could be pushed without letting them become barriers to trade, and whether there should be free trade in bio-technology and genetically modified food.

However Ms Barshefsky did accept claims that the way in which trade agreements are discussed, by a small number of countries in a private room needed to be reviewed.

"I wondered whether keeping people in a room, filled with intractable issues, was going to work", she said.

"There were only 25 countries in the room, meaning that there were 110 outside. I didn't like the look of it, I definitely didn't like the feel of it and I didn't like the way it was going."

Switzerland in spring

Some of the harshest criticism of the way the talks were organised and conducted has come from developing countries.

They have felt excluded while industrialised countries have stitched up deals among themselves.

The Foreign Minister of Guyana, Clement Rohee, said that system would have to stop if there were to be success in expanding free trade in future.

He said, "We from developing countries were invited to this meeting, and asked to participate, but then treated like delinquents.

"We didn't come here to sit outside and drink coffee while the decisions were taken by the richer countries."

It's been a turbulent week in Seattle.

There was the worst public disorder for 30 years and the first curfew since the Second World War.

Charlene Barshefsky and Mike Moore Ms Barshefsky and WTO chief Mike Moore hope for better talks to come
It's left the people of the city angry, and the image of the World Trade Organisation tarnished.

But the WTO has stressed that taking what Charlene Barshefsky called a "time out" in the debate, by freezing the discussions, much of the work of this week would be preserved.

Attempts to agree an agenda for a new round of talks will start again in Geneva in the Spring.

Discussions on trade in services and in agricultural products are already scheduled, after that part of the agenda was agreed in the last round of talks.

But considering the complex interrelationship of bargaining in Seattle, it's doubtful whether much progress can be made on those issues in isolation.

The Seattle talks, with all their noise and chaos, have also highlighted the negative side of free trade.

There is concern that too many areas of national life are falling under the control of trade rules, and the participants in future talks will be counting the cost of abolishing trade barriers all the more carefully.

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