12/14/2005, 00.00
HONG KONG

Talk of postponement amid WTO crisis

After two days of talks, the positions taken by rich and developing countries are still poles apart. There are statements but no concrete proposals. Meanwhile, protesters and police clashed again.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Agencies) – No progress has been registered in the first two days of the sixth meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO); calls have already been made for another meeting to be set shortly. Meanwhile, protests continue on the streets, as do clashes with police.

The Hong Kong meeting should have paved the way for elimination of trade barriers in the agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors by 2006. But developing countries accuse the rich ones (especially the United States, the European Union and Japan) of offering insufficient cuts to subsidies they give their farmers and to import taxes. The farming sector is a key part of the economy of hundreds of millions of people in poor states.

Peter Mandelson, EU Trade Commissioner, said he would not improve the offer to reduce taxes by 46% unless developing countries conceded substantial cuts in their trade barriers on manufactured goods and services. He insisted on not talking solely about the farming sector to consider a global accord.

Agreement would be possible, he said, "only if we can show what we gain for what we gave". Robert Portman, US delegate, repeated that the agreement on agriculture was "central" to any future structure and he invited Europe to make larger concessions. But the United States is only prepared to eliminate subsidies to farmers from 2010. Washington is despairing of reaching an accord and is asking that another summit be fixed "to keep the pressure on". Seiichi Kondo, Japanese ambassador for international trade, said: "We must concede something but we certainly also have to receive something." In the absence of an agreement, the United States and the EU are anyhow thinking about offering more financial aid to poor countries to set up infrastructure.

On the sidelines of the official meeting, Celso Amorim, the Brazilian foreign affairs minister, organized a meeting of 110 developing countries to establish a common line. "Poor countries cannot wait for another 20 years to see true reforms in agriculture trade," he warned. "There can be no agreement without specific proposals," said Kamal Nath, the Indian Trade Minister, inviting the EU to present some.

Meanwhile, protests by anti-WTO groups continue outside: hundreds of people from South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, India and other countries took to the streets of the city and stood outside consulates armed with drums, banners and effigies of Uncle Sam, of the Japanese premier Koizumi and the EU flag. They are protesting that the more powerful nations and multi-nationals want to exploit small countries. One banner said: "People before profits". Many wore red vests that said, "Public Service is not for sale". They argue that the opening of the services market would bring advantages for rich states which are much more competitive. South Korea farmers insist on safeguards for the national production of rice, with embargoes on imports. Today, there were new clashes with police, caused especially by South Korean protesters. The forces of order use pepper spray, but no serious injuries were reported.

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