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Crunch time again at WTO

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says he and Trade Minister Stockwell Day are ready to fly to Geneva for a ministerial meeting this month aimed at reaching an agreement on a new international trade deal.

“We’re ready to go,” the minister said in an interview when asked about reports that WTO negotiations during the last few weeks had brought the countries close to the point at which political decisions had to be made. A meeting is tentatively being considered for Dec. 13-15.

Crawford Falconer, the head of the agriculture negotiations, released proposals for the agriculture component of a new trade deal on Dec. 6. He said the emerging consensus on reducing tariff protection for sensitive products won’t be acceptable to Canada or Japan. Even though the G-20 group has advanced new proposals to bridge the gap, Falconer says he doesn’t know how to deal with the impasse.

Canada remains committed to its “balanced position” of encouraging agriculture exports and defending supply management, Ritz says. Falconer’s latest proposals “would negatively affect our supply managed industries. We remain opposed to these provisions.”

There are positive elements in his proposals “such as significant reductions in trade-distorting support and new market access opportunities for our agricultural producers and exporters,” Ritz added. The government will “continue to press hard to achieve all of its objectives.”

Marketing boards have kept the pressure on the government to hold firm to its position while livestock and crop commodity groups continue to call for more open markets.

Trade consultant Peter Clark thinks it may be premature if not pointless to hold a ministerial meeting this month. “Congress is sending the administration a message that WTO director-general Pascal Lamy and his boosters do not want to hear. Key committee chairs and ranking Republicans are telling the administration, ‘We strongly urge you not to allow the calendar to drive the negotiations through efforts to hastily schedule a ministerial meeting. There have been no signs that developing countries are willing to make the concessions necessary to provide real market access and produce a deal that Congress can support.’”

Clark says the U. S. position shouldn’t be a surprise because the trade talks have done little to open borders to manufactured goods.

Clark says that despite support for the proposed deal from countries such as India, “one must wonder what the attraction is in going to Geneva yet again with the prospect of any deal done being dead on arrival in Congress.”

The Dec. 1 Geneva Report from the marketing boards says stubborn differences remain among countries about tariffs and sensitive products. There also needs to be progress in the non-agricultural products negotiations.

The proposal for sensitive products remains pretty well where it was at in July – a short list of what can be included in that category and significant tariff cuts.

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