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Trade ministers to meet in India on Doha talks

By Jonathan Lynn
/ Source: Reuters

By Jonathan Lynn

Trade ministers will meet in New Delhi this week to inject new impetus into the faltering Doha round trade talks in the run-up to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

The aim, according to host India, is to "re-energize" the Doha talks, now in their eighth year, and set a timetable for completion, rather than engaging in substantive negotiations.

"As the objective is to resume and intensify the Doha Round negotiations, technical discussions are not envisaged. The discussion will mainly focus on the best way to spark the multilateral negotiations to move the round to a quick closure," India said in a position paper obtained by Reuters.

But some of the main players may use the September 3-4 meeting, preceded by talks on September 2 by senior officials, to try to make progress on some of the thorniest issues in the talks, launched in late 2001 by World Trade Organization (WTO) members to boost the world economy and help poor countries grow through trade.

The Pittsburgh summit is likely to see a Doha deal as part of the cure for the global economic crisis as well as a bulwark against protectionism.

Many self-imposed deadlines have come and gone in the Doha talks as rich and poor states and exporters and importers fought over opening markets and protecting sensitive industries. But diplomats said the most likely outcome of the Delhi talks would be an agreement to aim for a deal some time in 2010.

For the major trade players one challenge is to align the contentious Doha talks with the political cycle -- such as the U.S. midterm elections and Brazil's presidential election in 2010, the arrival of a new European Commission this year and the impact of the possible adoption of the EU's Lisbon Treaty.

"So my money is on spring or at least first half of 2010," said one EU diplomat.


India's new trade minister, Anand Sharma, a former diplomat, has stressed his determination to get trade partners around the negotiating table to secure an agreement, in contrast with the common Western perception of India as the spoiler in the talks.

But top Indian trade official Rahul Khullar told reporters last week that India would not compromise on food and livelihood security for the poor -- reinforcing a stance of defending the subcontinent's millions of subsistence farmers at all costs.

Sharma's desire for a deal has re-energized India's opposition and thousands of farmers are due to march in protest at the meeting of 36 trade ministers through Delhi on September 3.

India has as much interest as anyone in the global trading system umpired by the WTO as it fights seizures of its generic drugs in transit in European ports and considers boosting food imports to cope with this year's disappointing monsoon rains.

Whatever pledges emerge from the meeting will add to a long list of political calls for a Doha deal that are in stark contrast to progress in the detailed negotiations in Geneva.

The Doha talks have made little substantive progress since a nine-day meeting of ministers in July last year to seek a breakthrough collapsed, partly over differences between India and the United States over protection for poor farmers.

Former U.S. ambassador Peter Allgeier, who left Geneva this summer, said negotiators were not budging despite politicians' exhortations because they were not convinced the talks had reached the final stage where everyone shows their cards.

"Until people think it really is the end-game they're not going to make the difficult political decisions which enable them to really start bargaining in earnest," he told Reuters.

The United States cannot sign up to a deal until it is sure it will create new opportunities for American business.

"If we're going to get a package that we can sell at home there's going to have to be improved market access," he said.

Other trading powers say trade is simply not a high priority for President Barack Obama's administration, as it wrestles with the economic crisis and healthcare.

One sign of that is that the White House has not yet filled all the positions in U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk's team, including a replacement for Allgeier.

"Until those appointments are in place it's going to be very difficult for them to do anything of substance," said one rich-country diplomat.

Clues about Obama's willingness to push for a deal will come in a long-awaited trade policy speech he is expected to give before the Pittsburgh summit.

For now, whatever India, the United States, European Union and other trading powers agree in Delhi will be portrayed as a success.

"Anything less would undermine the G8 and G20 commitments made to complete the deal next year," the EU diplomat said.