Crucial WTO meeting goes into overtime
Stephen Green (L), British minister for trade and investment talks to WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo prior to the plenary session of the 9th World Trade Organization Ministerial Meeting in Nusa Dua on December 4, 2013
New World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevedo of Brazil is pushing for agreement on a modest set of measures at the conference on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
The meeting began with stark warnings from ministers that the Geneva-based WTO's credibility as the arbiter of global trade negotiations would be severely wounded if it could not deliver on even the limited Bali deal.
Ministers haggled for hours past a Friday afternoon deadline, trying to bridge divisions over India's insistence that it be allowed to stockpile and subsidise grain to provide cheap food for its millions of poor.
Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma had earlier strongly rejected calls for compromise but indicated late Friday he remained at the table.
"I am an eternal optimist, I never give up," he told reporters between meetings.
The United States and others say India's position violates WTO rules on subsidies and fear the grain could enter markets, skewing world prices.
At stake is the future of the WTO's larger agenda of freeing up trade through the Doha Round of talks launched in Qatar in 2001.
They aim to tear down trade barriers and establish globally binding rules fair to both rich and poor countries but the 12-year-old effort has continually foundered due to protectionist disputes among the WTO's 159 members.
The Bali package involves a commitment to limit agricultural subsidies, simplify customs procedures to facilitate trade, and policies to aid least-developed countries.
Though modest compared to Doha, it would mark the first global deal struck by the WTO since its founding in 1995.
Azevedo hopes it may lead to a future kick-start of the Doha Round.
"Let us not sugar-coat reality: leaving Bali this week without an agreement would deal a debilitating blow to the WTO as a forum for multilateral negotiations," U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said on Wednesday.
On Thursday, French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq said India may be held responsible if the conference fails.
Sharma denied suggestions New Delhi was holding up an international deal for domestic political reasons. India's ruling Congress party faces tough elections next year.
"Why should we be blamed for standing up for the poor farmers of the world and for the right to food security? If we have to be blamed for that, we'll be proud to be blamed," he said.
Azevedo has said without an agreement the WTO risks irrelevance especially as alternative regional pacts between major trading nations emerge.
These include the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) spearheaded by Washington. TPP negotiators will meet in Singapore this weekend as they work to hammer out a deal.
Azevedo said such pacts cannot protect the interests of the developing world's masses of poor -- a key WTO mission.
New Delhi wants an indefinite exemption from WTO challenges over its food policies. The Bali deal would limit the exemption period.
US opposition to India's demand was "hypocritical", said Timothy Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, citing Washington's own huge support for American farmers.
"The US is calling India out for its food security programme even though India has 10 times the beneficiaries, provides less than one-quarter the food, and spends one-sixth the amount per person," he wrote in a commentary circulated in Bali.
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