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Cairns Group Looks To Break The Impasse

Representatives of more than 25 countries are in Saskatoon this week looking for a way to break the deadlock in the WTO negotiations.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and his Australian counterpart are chairing the two-day Cairns Group meeting from Sept. 7 to 9.

The group, which held its inaugural meeting in the Aussie city, has tried to chart a trade strategy distinct from the United States and the European Union in the decade-old WTO talks to establish new international rules for farm and food trade. Cairns members want an end to subsidies and other trade-distorting practices.

More than 150 participants from the 19 Cairns countries and important trading partners are expected in Saskatoon. A topic for official sessions and corridor chats is what kind of renewed pushes will come this fall to get some form of WTO deal. The United States will be in election mode next year and Europe is struggling with its financial crisis, so it’s thought to be 2011 or possibly never.

Among the other items for the closed-door sessions in Saskatoon is Canada’s goal of agreement on a science-based approach to international trade so countries can’t limit or block imports without sound and verifiable reasons. Ritz has been advancing that idea in various international forums for months.

Canadian farmers have been stung by capricious European actions in refusing shipments.

While Canada has been an ardent supporter of the Cairns Group, it has had a bumpy ride over its defence of supply management in the dairy and poultry sectors, mainly with New Zealand.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in the WTO talks, Canada has joined other countries in making bilateral free trade agreements a greater priority. Canada and Europe are supposed to hold the final round of negotiations in Ottawa this fall on an FTA.

Earlier this year, Ted Menzies, minister of state for finance, cautioned countries may have to lower their expectations to achieve a WTO deal. The talks began with the goal of winning a bigger role for developing countries in international trade. “It’s clear there is a lot of concern among the countries in delivering something from a decade of discussion on trade issues.”

The final push for a WTO deal could come in December at a meeting of world trade ministers, he said.

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