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Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 16:03 GMT
World trade: You asked the UK trade minister

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    World trade has become increasingly controversial, with anti-globalisation protests around the world over the extension of free trade in recent years.

    The World Trade Organisation agreed a new plan to try and make trade help the world's poor in November 2001 in Doha, in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.

    But one year later, there has been little progress on key aspects of the deal, including greater access for agricultural goods and clothing from developing countries into rich countries.

    Britain has played a key role in pressing for more aid and trade for the world's poor, but its role in the trade negotiations is limited by the need to co-ordinate its actions with other EU countries, some of whom have less enthusiasm for change.

    UK Trade Minister, Baroness Symons answered your questions.



    Welcome to this BBC Interactive forum. World Trade sometimes comes across as a dirty word. At the heart of the debate about trade is the idea of fairness. Does free trade help or hurt poorer nations?

    The extension of free trade in recent years has many anti-globalisation protesters upset. But Britain played a key role in pressing for more aid and for more trade to help the world's poor. A role that's limited by Britain's need to coordinate its actions with other EU countries.

    We've had many questions e-mailed to us about world trade and we're going to put them to Britain's Trade Minister, Baroness Symons.

    But it's a rather good time for us to be talking about this because it's almost a year to the day since 142 trade ministers gathered in the country of Qatar in the Middle East in the city of Doha to launch a new round of trade negotiations.

    Baroness Symons, if I could start by asking you - before we get on to some of the e-mails - how important was that big event in Doha last year? Perhaps it was a bit lost in the Afghanistan coverage because it was at the same time as the Afghanistan war last year.

    Baroness Symons:

    Yes, I think it's true, it did get rather lost and that is a shame because it was an enormously important agreement that we reached.

    It was essentially an agreement between, as you say, 142 countries - now of course 144 because China and Chinese Taipei have joined us - about actually concentrating on developing countries in this trade round. And the main issue there is opening up markets, in so far as we're able, to poorer countries by dealing with the issues around subsidies and tariffs.

    If we were able to just halve the tariffs that are used in trade around the world, poorer countries would increase their trade by about $150 billion a year. That's three times what they get in their aid budgets.

    So this is a crucial set of negotiations that we're involved in. Of course it covers many different sectors - there's agriculture, there's textiles, there's the way we deal with medicines - all those things are very important


    This was just the start of the process though not the end of it - how's it going? Is it actually working?

    Baroness Symons:

    Well I think most people would say that it maybe had a slowish start. To start off with everybody came away feeling yes, we had done something very worthwhile. But then we need to have the mechanisms in place for people to be able to argue their corner.

    It's all very well for countries like ours - we are well equipped, we've got economists, we've got lawyers, we've got statisticians and we've got the people on the ground in Geneva where the WTO negotiations go on.

    Now many poorer countries in the world do not have simply the capacity to argue their corner in that way and we've been spending quite a lot of time looking at the ways in which we can help those poorer countries to present their country's case properly around the WTO table.

    We're making some good progress now. We've got a new director general, Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, in the WTO. He, I think, enjoys a great deal of confidence from the developing countries and we've got some crucial ministerial meetings coming up now over the course of the next year when we hope that we will be able to make some progress.


    Andrew Torrance, Wales: The World Trade Organisation is perceived to be undemocratic and wielding power in the interests of trade. Does this damage its effectiveness?

    Baroness Symons:

    I honestly don't think it is undemocratic. The WTO is just about the only international organisation I can think of where every vote from every country has equal weight. So you have to reach a consensus in doing that.

    Now we've got 144 countries involved in trying to reach that sort of consensus and I know from my own experience at Doha last year, that an enormous amount of negotiation went on. Not just between the richer countries of the world but very much involving the poorer countries of the world in the sorts of issues which were at stake.

    There was, for example, a huge push forward on how we can give proper access to life-saving medicines for some of the poorer countries in the world who don't currently have that for the sorts of illnesses that you associate with poverty - malaria, TB, HIV/Aids - those sorts of illnesses.

    So I think where there might be an element of difficulty is when those poorer countries do not have the capacity to argue their case as effectively as the richer countries and that's an issue that we really do have to address.

    This country, I think, has done a great deal to say to the rest of the developed world - look we want to put much more money into capacity building for these poorer countries in order that they are able to argue their case better in the WTO.


    We've just had an e-mail in from Rasak in Cape Town, South Africa. He says: Should developing countries be given debt relief and aid as well as trade? I wish my bank would be so generous with me.

    Are these a pair - debt relief and trade?

    Baroness Symons:

    Yes, I think they absolutely are. And again, Claire Short my colleague in the Department of International Development, has done a tremendous amount on working on debt relief throughout the world.

    The problem is of course, if you've got countries which are very poor, which do then manage to generate some sort of income through their trade, then finding that is immediately absorbed in the their debts, then clearly they can't plough that money back into the development of their own country.

    So that's the whole issue behind debt relief and why this country has done so much to try to espouse debt relief and to persuade others of the richer countries around the world to do what we've done, which is to put some debts on one side.

    But you can't just stop there. You've got to then look at how you take the issues forward in order to improve the prosperity in those countries and you don't just do that by just giving aid and not considering how the countries can join in the world's prosperity to increasing their capacity to join in the trade of the world.

    And the countries we've seen that have opened themselves up to trade, have actually managed to increase prosperity in their countries far more effectively than those who've closed their doors.


    Duncan Drury, UK: Why should people trust the World Trade Organisation? Industry in Europe is protected whilst in poor countries industry is opened up to the profit of the rich world. The flow of money really seems to be one way - from the world's many poor to the few rich.

    This is an accusation that we've heard a lot of that actually the rich are so good at negotiating in the WTO, it's always the poor who get screwed somehow. Is there some fairness in that accusation?

    Baroness Symons:

    I think that that might have been an accusation that was fair a few years ago but I think its less and less fair as we go on.

    The WTO is after all, government to government negotiation and it is governments who've decided to concentrate on developing countries to try to improve the market access of those developing countries.

    Now there's many, many different ways in which we can do that. We can of course do it in the sorts of ways that I've mentioned about improving their capacity to negotiate. But in the end, what the richer countries of the world have really got to grasp is that we have got to do something about lowering tariffs and also about opening up our agricultural markets.

    Now we in the EU have already, for example, got an initiative called Everything but Arms. What we've done is to abolish the quotas and the tariffs that impede the trade of poorer countries into the EU.

    We would like to see that sort of Everything but Arms - which means that we do this - that is to say, no quotas no tariffs on all trade except the arms trade for the 49 least developed countries in the world.

    We'd like to see that as a model for rich countries throughout the world and we've really got to concentrate here very, very hard indeed upon opening up our agricultural markets.


    Amoroso Gombe, Kenya: I just cannot understand why you simply don't open your markets to our produce. Protect essential foods if you want but why should chocolate from Ghana be subject to a 300% duty going into Germany for example. By simply opening your markets you'd solve so many problems with one fell swoop, what are you waiting for?

    A further e-mail from Ruth Muller, South Africa: What is the UK going to do in the next 12 months to ensure that those European subsidies are reduced to EU farmers? I ask this in the context of increasing concern over access to the EU for agricultural products.

    Baroness Symons:

    Your South African e-mailer has actually put her finger on one of the nubs of the problem. The problems here for us lie in the opinions around in the EU at the moment about how we should open up our trade.

    We've got the problems of tariffs as you've just mentioned - particular tariffs in particular countries. We've also got the problem of subsidies and it is not just the issue therefore that people find it very difficult to trade in to the European Union. It's also that for some countries - I was speaking particularly to some people from South Africa only last week - who said it's not just that. It is also they suffer from dumping from the European Union back into their own countries.

    Now this is a very serious problem. It's one the Prime Minister has spoken about recently, it's one that Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State at the DTI and I have to tackle on a very regular basis. Our position - the UK's position - in the European Union is that we argue strenuously for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

    I should say that it's not just a European problem - that's where obviously we've got our particular responsibilities. But you'll find similar problems that people experience overseas when they try and trade with the United States. The United States Farm Bill as we all know recently increased subsidies to their farmers and to a certain extent it's also true of trade with Japan.

    Now what we've got to do is to go back to what we agreed at Doha. And what we said at Doha was that we were going to phase out these subsidies. Now we've got to stick to the agreement we made. It was only a year ago that we made these agreements. We meant what we signed - the UK Government meant it.


    It's only a few weeks ago that the Germans and the French stitched up a deal to keep the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies going until 2013.

    Baroness Symons:

    And as you know there was not an entire meeting of minds on some of those issues in the European Union. But let me just put the positive side about what's happening in the European Union.

    Don't let's forget that it's the European Union that has espoused the very important Everything but Arms agreement. And don't let's forget that the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy is still very much on track. Now that's looking at proposals to come out of the Commission itself about what we should do about subsidies into the future.

    I'd hate to say that none of that counts any more - it has to count - that is enormously important actually for the health and well-being of the European Union itself, given how much we're expanding in central and eastern Europe and we've got to have a review of how we deal with the Common Agricultural Policy in that context alone.

    For me, however, there is the much bigger issue about how we deal with world trade and how we keep faith with the developing countries of the world about the undertakings we made to them at Doha.


    Just in a word - just to be clear for Amoroso - you do not think chocolate from Ghana should be subject to a 300% duty?

    Baroness Symons:

    I think that those sorts of tariffs are exactly the sort of examples of the problems that we've got when we say we want to have fairer trade around the world.


    But if you had your way you would get rid of that?

    Baroness Symons:

    I'm not going to say just like that what the German government should do. I agree that it sounds like an extraordinarily high tariff and I would like to know exactly why the German government think that is appropriate. Maybe they have an explanation of which I am ignorant.

    But it is exactly the sort of tariff that we would like to see lowered. I think that that is the sort of the area where if we really do, as Europeans who are genuinely concerned about prosperity in other parts of the world, - we really are able to engage sensibly in halving the sorts of tariffs we have at the moment - then we could make a real difference to the prosperity of those countries.


    We just had an e-mail come in from Chris Turner, in London: Why does the WTO and the bilateral agencies always appear to work against each other?

    I presume when he says bilateral agencies, he's talking about the bilateral trading relationships between say the EU and the United States etc. Why do you think the World Trade Organisation and the bilateral agencies always appear to be working against each other?

    Baroness Symons:

    I'm not quite sure I follow what he's getting at here. But what I think he may be getting at is, why do we have these international agreements on the one hand and yet we still have very serious trade problems? For example, the trade problem we've had with the United States over steel.

    Well the answer to that is that under the WTO, governments can, when they feel that they have got really vulnerable industries, take special and particular measures to try to protect those industries. They have to do so on a short-term basis and they have to do so with very good reasons.

    We've actually of course challenged what the United States has done over the position they put themselves into on steel and that is now going to the WTO. But I'd say the questioner is actually not quite right because what the WTO does is to help us resolve those issues. We would still have those sort of bilateral clashes and indeed we do with a number of different countries over different sorts of trade disputes around the world.

    But the thing that the WTO does is to give us a rule-based organisation in which we can resolve them. So that we don't just go into tit-for-tat trade wars where one country says well I am putting on a tariff because you've put on a tariff and then the whole thing gets worse and worse and all our industries and exporters suffer. Instead of which we can now go to a third party and say look, you are the holders of the rule book, what do you think we should be doing to try to resolve this bilateral dispute.


    We've got a couple of questions now. The first is from Rupesh in the UK: Big companies can seemingly get away with anything and can seemingly dictate government policy. What happened to democracy?

    Martin Gower-Smith, UK: Doesn't globalisation just mean the creation of a few world wide corporations with a total monopoly and absolute power? Microsoft is a leading example of this.

    What is your answer to the general accusation that the world trade system and the World Trade Organisation are somehow vulnerable to the dictates of big business in particular - particularly in the rich world? Do you think there's something in that?

    Baroness Symons:

    I think that is not true in the way that the World Trade Organisation works and I cite there the fact that every single one of the 144 countries in the World Trade Organisation has an equal value vote.

    I know from myself that when we were preparing to go to the World Trade Organisation summit in Doha last year, that British Government ministers came together - environment ministers, development ministers, the Foreign Office, the Trade ministers.


    And the CBI - the Confederation of Business Industry.

    Baroness Symons:

    I want to come back to the CBI and in fact the TUC in a moment. But as ministers, we took a view about where we thought the right position was for the United Kingdom.

    You're quite right, we talk to the non-governmental organisations including the CBI and the TUC and a number of other non-governmental organisations. Organisations like Oxfam, like Cafod, like Save the Children, who we are very interested in because of course they are part of civil society and they have a very particular view and know a great deal about what is happening in developing countries.

    Now on our official delegation to Doha last year, yes, indeed we take somebody from the CBI. We also took somebody from our Trade Union Congress - that is the other side of industry - who were very interested indeed of course on things like labour standards. And we took a representative from the other non-governmental organisations who was very interested in development industries.

    I should also tell you that when we were in Doha, ministers met all the non-governmental organisations who'd come out to be in Doha to monitor what was going on. We met them every single day and had very long meetings, talking through their concerns about the way in which our negotiations were going.

    So my experience of this is that it is just not correct to say that this is all hijacked by big business. Yes, there are big business interests there. But there are the interests of those who are primarily concerned in development issues - maybe perhaps in environmental issues, maybe in labour standard issues. But we have the opportunity to talk to all those people in the preparation for the negotiations and indeed while we're undertaking the negotiations themselves. .


    Mark, Peterborough: More and more UK industries are either closing or moving abroad because of cheap labour abroad. Even call centres are relocating to India. Where will my children - aged 2 and 4 - be employed in 20 years time?

    A follow up question we have from Jane, UK: Will the WTO ensure that laws providing for fair wages and conditions are introduced in lesser developed countries - and that these will be adhered to by companies moving their production to these countries?

    This is a very common charge one hears that by basically signing up to globalisation it just means we're exporting jobs from the people who vote you into power, Baroness Symons. What's the answer?

    Baroness Symons:

    When your first correspondent says - where are my children going to be employed. The answer to that is well of course I very much hope that they will be employed in this country.

    The fact is that we have the lowest unemployment that we've had in this country for decades and what the Government is doing is to concentrate on a highly skilled and a high waged economy - that is what we're aiming for.

    It is quite right that a number of jobs have been exported - they've been exported maybe as far some of them as China, others into central Europe. But that doesn't mean that they haven't been replaced by other hi-tech jobs. And what we're looking for is capitalise on the creativity, the skills, the innovation in our industry at home - our manufacturing industry where Patricia Hewitt has put an enormous amount of effort in the last year. But also of course our service industries as well.

    So we are sustaining the job market but we aren't going to do it by aiming low. We've got to aim high. We are a highly skilled workforce now in this country and that's where we've got to concentrate.

    Now your other correspondent, wants to know about what do we do about fair wages in other countries. I think this is a really, really difficult problem and I'll tell you why.

    When I was in Doha last year, I raised these issues with some of my counterparts in developing countries. I said, look this is very difficult, we really don't want to see markets where you're using child labour and what we would consider almost to be slave wages. And they said, look it's all very well for you as a rich country to argue like that, but we're a developing country and we've got to develop our industries in the best way that we can.

    Indeed some of them went so far as to accuse those who had those concerns of just operating restrictive trade practices by the back door. They said, we want open trade but now you are trying to restrict our trade by talking about the way in which we run our own labour forces - that's a matter for us as the governments of our own countries, many of them of course elected - and that is something that we believe you should stay out of.

    I feel that this is a real concern but I don't know the best way to pursue it is through the WTO. I would have thought that the international labour organisation was a rather better route and it certainly is a route that we've adopted. We talk a lot to our trades unions about this.


    Martin Bentley, UK: Is trade with nations with bad human rights records acceptable? In particular nations such as Saudi Arabia, China and Indonesia. Are we not making a mockery of the values we espouse by trading with these regimes?

    What's your view on human rights? It's slightly different from labour standards isn't it? Do we trade with everybody and just turn a blind eye to the morality of their systems?

    Baroness Symons:

    We do of course trade with most countries in the world. We do draw the line over some particular sorts of trade with particular countries particularly where the defence industries are concerned. Of course we have a very strict regime of licensing for defence exports in this country. I should think we've probably got the strictest licensing regime anywhere in the world. Again it's one that we would like other countries to adopt.

    But we do engage in trade with countries whose human rights record is not all that we would wish them to be. We do believe that it's very important to engage with those countries and trade is a way that we can actually exert some influence on those countries.

    If we just turn our faces away from countries when we don't like the way in which they run their internal human rights, then actually you have cut yourself off from one of the real points of leverage in trying to persuade them to change what they're doing.


    Richard Sarson, England: What can the British government do to achieve a higher proportion of fair trade goods are purchased in the UK?

    Baroness Symons:

    There is real problems over some of the commodity markets. We do need to address this. Patricia Hewitt and I will be meeting, for example, coffee producers and NGOs who have expressed particular concerns over the coffee markets, in the beginning of December.

    It's not just coffee - there are a number of other commodities where we need to concentrate. We can help if we try to diversify the markets in those countries but it is an issue that we've recognised and it is one that we're putting to the top of the agenda.


    An e-mail just in from Bill Knight, London: Do you agree that there's no real alternative to globalisation?

    Baroness Symons:

    I think that globalisation is here to stay but that if we want to have fair trade for developing countries, it behoves the rest of us who in richer countries can make some special treatment available for those developing countries - particularly where they rely on only one or two on exports.


    So it's make globalisation work for the poor as well as the rich.

    Baroness Symons:

    For the poorer countries as well as for the richer countries, yes.


    I'm afraid we've run out of time. Thank you for the many questions and special thanks also to our guest Baroness Symons for answering them.

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