- 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
- "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
- 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,"
- 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
- 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