WTO Talks End In Failure
By Edwina Gibbs

SEATTLE (Reuters) - A meeting of global trade ministers has failed to achieve its goal of launching a new round of trade liberalisation talks, diplomats and officials said.
In a major embarrassment for President Bill Clinton and a setback for free trade, diplomats said the United States and the World Trade Organisation would release a brief statement declaring an end to the meeting but would not launch a new round of negotiations as they had hoped.
"All I'm expecting is a short political statement," said a senior European ambassador, echoing similar predictions from diplomats from Asia, Europe and Latin America. "It might be dressed up, but what it amounts to is failure."
Accompanied by massive protests, the four-day meeting of the 135-member nation body was beset from the start by divisions on many issues, from cutting farm subsidies to imposing minimum labour standards on developing countries to reviewing trade retaliation laws.
"It appears a finger will be put on the pause button for an unspecified period of time," EU spokesman Peter Guilford said. Diplomats said the whole issue now heads back to the WTO's headquarters in Geneva, where Director-General Mike Moore will review the work that's been done and make a decision on when to try again to launch a new round.
In the heavily guarded convention centre here exhausted negotiators from the United States and other countries lay slumped on chairs. Others drank beer as the "Silent Night" Christmas carol played over the sound system.
As the shock of the talks' failure sunk in, the recriminations began. "It's the beginning of the blame game," one Canadian delegate said.
Some developing countries, who make up two-thirds of the WTO's membership, blamed the United States for the fiasco.
"The host country was a protagonist, an advocate on too many issues, to bring about a compromise," said Kobsak Chutikul, director general of economic affairs from Thailand's Foreign Ministry.
Australian trade official Mitch Hooke said divisions within the European Union and the upcoming U.S. presidential election undermined political support for a new trade round.
"We're in a no man's land. How much of a political imperative was there to get the deal done? Not as much as you want," he said.
U.S. officials blamed the enormity of the task facing delegates and entrenched positions. A U.S. Agriculture Department official said talks broke down over export subsidies, an issue where the European Union had stood firm.
A European delegate now saw three scenarios: A statement would be issued, either stating that progress had been made and that ministers would meet again in six months, or declaring the meeting a failure.
The third option, which would be a partial success, would be to announce the launch of a new trade round with a list of sectors to be covered, but leaving the details of the agenda to be decided by officials, the European delegate said.
Thailand's Kobsak complained that the process was dominated by the United States, the EU and Japan. "We hope the (WTO) Director-General (Moore) can put it back together again in three to four months."
Others took comfort in the progress made which they thought could be built on. "The progress that has been made is not lost. The progress that has been made will be frozen," said Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile.
The WTO and the United States, as host, had an enormous amount at stake in the talks, which were marred by demonstrations by thousands of anti-free trade protesters, some of whom smashed store windows and battled with teargas-firing police this week.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and WTO Moore both declared before the meeting that there was too much at stake for the meeting to fail.
Developing nations had said they were being steamrollered by the big powers in a bid to reach a deal at any cost.
The European Union was unhappy about language in a draft agreement proposing to cut domestic farm supports and eventually eliminate farm export subsidies and wanted concessions in other areas in order to agree.
European diplomats said there had been progress on labour standards, with a draft text drawn up along the lines of an EU proposal calling for a joint International Labour Organisation/WTO working forum on trade and labour issues.
Labour standards are a key demand for Clinton, who has one eye on labour unions, a key constituency for Democrats going into the 2000 presidential election.
Anti-dumping rules were also a major stumbling block for negotiators. Japan and other critics want the WTO to renegotiate the rules, which allow the U.S. government to impose punitive duties and tariffs on foreign-made products it deems to be sold at less than production costs.
Seattle officials, who have seen their city centre trashed by some of the demonstrators, were eager to see the meeting wrap up so businesses wouldn't lose any more holiday shopping days due to a security crackdown.


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