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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 07:02 GMT 08:02 UK
Cancun: A view from the ground

By Andrew Walker
BBC economics correspondent in Cancun

Beach scene at Cancun
Delegates are unlikely to see much of Cancun's beaches

There's plenty of sun, sand and sea at this Caribbean holiday resort. Not that delegates at the World Trade summit are likely to get much time to enjoy it.

Instead they are spending the best part of five days - more if the meeting overruns - in an anonymous air-conditioned Conference Centre; a building that could frankly be anywhere.

There are demonstrators in the City, denouncing the World Trade Organisation's trade liberalisation agenda.

But nobody expects them to disrupt the business - which the protesters did succeed in doing when the WTO met in Seattle in 1999.

The resort area where the meetings are being held is on a narrow strip of land connected to the mainland at both ends, with a lagoon in between.

And that makes it relatively easy for the security forces to seal the area off from the protesters, although there are plenty of tourists around sharing hotels with delegates and journalists.

Sleepless nights

The participants are more likely to have been alarmed by crocodile warnings along the lagoon than they are to have been troubled by the protests.

Riot police in Cancun
And they are being shielded from the riots
The mood among delegates seems to be reasonably upbeat, although they know they are looking at a tough few days, and probably some sleepless nights towards the end as well.

They have been told by the WTO Director General Supachai Panitchpadki that they need to reach a consensus that sets the organisation on course for completing trade liberalisation negotiations by the end of next year.

He says that a clear indication that the WTO members are committed to economic growth through trade will give a boost to confidence at a time of uncertainty about the global economy.

And he says they can make a contribution to international effort to tackle poverty. So there is a lot at stake.

Vague definitions

Delegates are also acutely aware of the succession of missed deadlines for interim outline agreements.

Conference centre at Cancun
Cancun's conference centre: home for five days
But what eases the pressure a little is the fact that meeting is not one with what WTO Chief Spokesman Keith Rockwell calls a 'binary outcome' - one that either fails to launch a new round of trade talks, as Seattle did in 1999, or succeeds in doing so like Doha nearly two years ago.

Success or failure here will be a much vaguer question of whether Cancun gives the negotiations new momentum.

Ambitions have been significantly scaled down. In agriculture there was supposed be an agreement on the real numbers - overall targets for cuts in subsidies and tariffs by the rich countries, by the end of March.

Now even some countries that are exerting the greatest pressure on the European Union and Japan seem to accept that those hard numbers won't be agreed here.

So with the more modest and subjective aspirations that WTO members have for this meeting - it should be possible for anyone who wants to claim victory.


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