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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 12:17 GMT
Too early to cheer the Doha deal
Trade representatives talk at Doha
There will be much more talking before a deal is done
By BBC News Online's James Arnold

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Winston Churchill was, of course, not talking about this week's World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Doha, but his words are apt.

The fact that 142 countries were able to clinch a trade deal in Doha has been greeted as a triumph by governments and commentators around the world.

And rightly so: even in the days before the agreement, the gulfs separating various trade blocs were yawning alarmingly wide.

But the triumphalism should not disguise the fact that Doha is a preliminary to a deal, rather than a deal itself.

Even if everything goes according to plan - and that is a big "if" - many years of gruelling negotiations lie ahead before a genuine achievement can be chalked up.

Round one

Some of the confusion over Doha arises from the term for what has been agreed - a new "trade round".

Key principles agreed at Doha
Liberalisation of agricultural trade
Opening up the financial services market
General reduction of tariff barriers
Rules on subsidies for steel and textiles
Boost to dispute settlement system
New "green" rules for trade
Labelling and copyright protection for drinks
Relaxation on control of drug manufacturing
A trade round is not a new set of rules, principles or procedures for global trade, but rather a catch-all term for the painstaking discussions that aim to result in such rules.

A trade round is a dangerously fragile beast.

The last successful attempt, the Uruguay Round, ran from 1986 to 1993, before the WTO itself was formed in 1995.

Attempts to set up a Seattle Round floundered under the weight of international protests and economic tension two years ago.

The current deal in Doha merely helps to set the agenda for a new set of trade talks, which will now begin in January 2002, and are scheduled to be completed by 2005.

Time waits for no one

That might sound like a relaxed - even luxurious - timetable.

But in the glacial world of multinational negotiations, four years is considered highly ambitious.

True, Doha has helped clear away the nastiest of the apparent obstacles to eventually hammering out a final deal.

Major concessions have been made to developing countries, for example, as well as to the European Union, which came to Doha with a sweeping agenda.

But the danger remains that many countries may have concealed their true aims at Doha, or may change their point of view under political or economic pressure.

After all, the current global climate is highly exceptional, and a great deal is certain to change as 2005 chugs into view.

Problems, problems...

And the world is a far more complicated place than it was in the early decades of global trade deals.

A protestor makes an environmental point
Green issues are firmly on the agenda
Partly thanks to the efforts of anti-globalisation protestors, trade talks are no longer simply about the technicalities of demolishing tariff barriers and agreeing on subsidies.

As the Doha agreement reflects, issues including environmental concerns and poverty-reduction policies are as high on the WTO's agenda as basic freedom of trade.

Indeed, freedom of trade, the rationale behind negotiations in the aftermath of World War II, is no longer the over-riding concern.

The WTO is increasingly seen as a global economic policy-maker along the same lines as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Some at Doha worried that the EU wanted to make the WTO into a sort of "world government", responsible for everything from the environment to consumer affairs.

Keep on talking

With such a dizzying range of issues at stake, the next four years will be far from easy - albeit on a lower level of intensity than the sweatshop of Doha.

And not all the issues have yet been agreed, even in principle.

Four areas - investment, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and customs procedures - could yet be shoehorned into the talks, despite not being included in the Doha agreement.

But for the moment, it is at least worth celebrating the fact that countries have agreed on something.

It may not sound like much, but in the contentious arena of international economic diplomacy, agreeing to agree is a rare achievement indeed.


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