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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 11: 99: Battle for Free Trade
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Wednesday, 24 November, 1999, 11:22 GMT
Showdown in Seattle
Seattle is set for protests

by the BBC's Washington Correspondent Paul Reynolds

World trade negotiations are traditionally conducted in obscurity and ignored by the mass of the people even though their lives are affected by unseen rules and unheard of regulations.

The battle for free trade
Not so in Seattle. Suddenly, the talk is of demonstrations and democracy, of the environment and sovereignty, of child labour and e-commerce.

Suddenly, Seattle is the place to be.

Protestors will parade and some have even muscled their way onto delegations which will try to agree an agenda for a new round of world trade talks in the WTO, the World Trade Organisation.

Questioning free trade

Why the new-found interest? Because more and more people have questioned the growth of free trade and globalisation. They claim that free trade often means expensive trade for the poor. WTO rules, they say, ride roughshod over national decisions and environmental needs.

Does free trade hurt agricutlure?
Take a look at the website for Public Citizen, one of the leading non government organisations (NGO's) whose voices will be loudly heard in Seattle.

Public Citizen lists examples of WTO forcing the weak to bow to the strong -- like a law protecting turtles being ruled by the WTO as a barrier to trade; like poor farmers being made to pay agribusinesses to plant seeds they themselves have helped develop. The lists goes on.

And yet, the counter claim from the developed world is that free trade works. It has brought prosperity to millions and its benefits should spread. Protectionism sounds appealing, this argument holds, but is self defeating.

Perhaps the problem has been that the growth of world trade, while it has indeed brought riches to many, has also failed to improve the lives of many. There is a fear among some of the big companies, of big governments and of the power of the WTO itself.

Eyes on the prize

In Seattle, those concerns will have to be faced. It is questionable, though, whether they will be satisfied. The big boys have their eyes on other prizes.

The priority for the United States is to get changes in the policy of the European Union to subsidise farm exports. The subsidies, the Americans argue, strongly supported by the Australians and other farming countries, distort world trade and impact badly on developing countries, like South Africa.

The European Union is willing to negotiate changes but says that these will take time, much longer than the three years envisaged for this new trade round. An argument over agriculture is one thing you can depend on in international trade negotiations.

For its part, the EU claims it is going to Seattle with an "open mind for an open agenda to get open markets". One of its aims is to open up protected markets to its companies offering services such an insurance and investment.

As a gesture to the really poor, the EU and the United States are prepared to waive tariffs for the so called "least developed countries".

And those countries in the middle are anxious that the WTO not be given more powers which would undermine their own sovereignty.

Suppose, for example that the rich would only import goods made according to their own high labour standards. This could mean millions of the poor being thrown out of their jobs. Expect the issue of "core labour standards" to be raised in Seattle and beyond

Complex deal

As will be obvious, the WTO talks are a complex mix. And in Seattle, all that will happen is they will try to reach agreement on what areas the new round will cover. Preliminary efforts to do this in Geneva have failed and the ministers who will be in Seattle will have to earn their salaries.

The best guess would be that there will an agreement, probably at the last moment. Nobody will want to concede anything until everything is ready.

The momentum for a further round is certainly there. The WTO is on the move. China and the United States have agreed on the basis for Chinese membership and China's parallel talks with the EU will pick up soon. Down the road, Russia will probably be brought in.

The protestors will have to shout very loud in Seattle and marshal their arguments well in order to make their influence felt. Let battle commence.
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