Hopes brighten for deal at high-stakes WTO meeting
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman (2nd L) speaks with Brazil's Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado (2nd R) during 9th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Nusa Dua, on the island of Bali on December 6, 2013
New World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevedo of Brazil is pushing world commerce ministers to agree on a set of measures at a conference on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
The package is relatively modest compared to the WTO's broad vision of tearing down trade barriers around the world.
But it would nevertheless mark the first global deal struck by the body since its 1995 founding.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said he had "very good hopes" a deal would be agreed, adding: "It looks like tonight we have saved the WTO."
The meeting began Tuesday 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.
But the language of a revised text appeared to assuage India's concerns.
"Yes we are more than happy. It is a great day," Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma said of the new wording.
"It’s a historic decision."
The WTO was still working to obtain the endorsement of other members and a final decision was not expected until late in the evening.
India -- which aims to stockpile and subsidise grain for its millions of poor -- had demanded that such measures be granted indefinite exemption from WTO challenge.
The United States and others had said India's grain policy violated WTO rules on subsidies and expressed fear the grain could enter markets, skewing world prices.
The revised text appeared to remove any hard time limit on such exemptions.
A deal could have major repercussions for the WTO's larger agenda of freeing up trade through the Doha Round of talks launched in Qatar in 2001.
Those talks aim to slash trade barriers and establish globally binding rules fair to both rich and poor countries.
But protectionist disputes among the WTO's 159 members have foiled agreement.
The Bali package involves a commitment to limit agricultural subsidies, simplify customs procedures to facilitate trade, and policies to aid least-developed countries.
Azevedo hopes it may lead to a future kick-start of the Doha Round.
On Thursday, French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq said India may be held responsible if the conference fails.
Sharma has denied suggestions New Delhi was holding up an international deal for domestic political reasons. India's ruling Congress party faces tough elections next year.
Azevedo has said without an agreement the WTO risks being eclipsed by alternative regional pacts emerging between major trading nations.
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, who took over in September, said such pacts cannot protect the interests of the developing world's masses of poor -- a key WTO mission.
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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