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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 17:41 GMT
'Time running out' for trade deal
Farmers in Columbia
Disagreement over farming is holding up the trade talks
UK International Development Secretary Hilary Benn has warned time is running out to reach a world trade deal.

Mr Benn told a House of Commons Select Committee that any trade deal would need to benefit developing nations.

The US now says it has low expectations for the trade round - and hopes only for a deal by mid-2006.

The World Trade Organisation is meeting in Hong Kong on 13-18 December in talks aimed at freeing trade in agriculture and services.

Negotiators are meeting in Geneva this week in a last- minute effort to patch up a deal.

But it now looks unlikely that the Hong Kong summit will usher in a new era of increased free trade particularly aimed at benefiting developing countries.

"As to how things are going currently, I think pretty difficult really," Mr Benn said. "There is very little time in which to sort it out."

The UK trade minister, Ian Pearson, told the House of Commons Select Committee on Overseas Aid that he would like to see more flexibility in the EU negotiating position.

He also openly acknowledged that the negotiating mandate of the European Commission - which is representing the EU at the talks - did not go far enough.

"It is an interesting point of debate as to whether the mandate is sufficient to secure the level of ambition that we want to see for the round as a whole," he said.

"I don't think it is any secret to say that the UK would like see the Commission go further than the existing mandate," he added.

'Serious offer'

While the talks have reached an impasse, efforts to reach a trade deal will fail unless both rich and poor nations can be flexible, the UK's House of Lords has warned.

Pascal Lamy
[All delegates must] exercise good will and redouble their efforts in order to find all possible convergence in the few hours before us".
WTO boss Pascal Lamy

With the issue of farm support and import duties being the main continuing stumbling block - most specifically the accusation that the European Union is not making enough concessions - the Lords' want the rest of the world to take Europe's latest offer seriously.

The House of Lords sub-committee on Economic and Financial Affairs and International Trade said that the EU's offer to reduce agricultural tariffs by an average of 38.9% was a serious one, which required a constructive response from other countries.

It otherwise fears the Hong Kong talks could fail as dismally as the Cancun, Mexico talks of September 2003.

'Failure'

"Unless both developed and developing countries are willing to demonstrate flexibility and commitment to the World Trade Organisation, the forthcoming WTO Ministerial is in serious risk of Cancun-style failure," said the committee's chairman Lord Radice.

"It is therefore all the more important for all involved to work for a constructive Hong Kong Ministerial and a successful Doha Round."

In Geneva, WTO boss Pascal Lamy has urged negotiators to "redouble" their efforts.

He called on all delegations to "exercise good will and redouble their efforts in order to find all possible convergence in the few hours before us".

Yet Mr Lamy has also already cautioned that the ongoing round of trade talks might have to continue after Hong Kong into next year before final agreement is reached

Hypocrisy

Meanwhile, representatives of the UK's trade justice movement accused the UK government of hypocrisy at the trade negotiations.

They claim that the UK government is backing the "offensive agenda" of the EU to force concessions from developing countries on the issue of service-sector liberalisation and lowering tariffs on industrial goods while publicly stating that they back 'flexibility' in trade talks.

John Hilary of War on Want said that the UK's position was in direct breach of Labour's 2005 election manifesto that stated "we do not believe that poor countries should be forced to liberalise."

And the World Development Movement released a letter they said was leaked from an industry body, the European Services Forum (ESF), which criticised the EU for proposing "numerical targets" in service sector negotiations which "would not prove acceptable to the WTO membership as a whole".

They advised the EU "to move on this issue soon, while they could still get credit for doing so."

An advisor to the ESF told the BBC that although they were concerned about developing country opposition, they were generally supportive of the EU's negotiating approach on services.


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