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ECONOMY: Commonwealth to Play a Role in Trade Talks

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Nov 14 2003 (IPS) - The Commonwealth can play an important role in advancing the stalled Doha Development Round when World Trade Organisation officials meet in Geneva next month, says Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon.

Ministers are due to meet Dec. 15 at an informal gathering aimed at rescuing the Doha Development Round. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is trying to engineer a compromise at the meeting.

The discussions took a near fatal blow in Cancun, Mexico, in September when ministers failed to agree on a multilateral trade programme.

“The first step in reviving the Round is the meeting in Geneva,” McKinnon said at a meeting organised by the think-tank, the European Policy Centre.

“It is extremely important for the Commonwealth and we will be going there with a view to reaching an agreement on the trade negotiations,” he said at a meeting on ‘The EU and the Commonwealth: Common Interest and Challenges Ahead’.

McKinnon described the Commonwealth as a “strategic negotiating partner” in the talks. He said his organisation can be an influential player in getting the Doha negotiations back on track.

The Commonwealth comprises 54 countries with a population of 1.4 billion people.

“The Commonwealth is strategically placed to get a consensus over the trade talks,” he said. “It can play an important role in generating an agreement in political and trade matters. An agreement between Commonwealth countries could be the basis for a broader agreement for the rest of the WTO members.”

The Commonwealth includes developed countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and some of the poorest countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

McKinnon urged key players such as the European Union (EU) and the WTO to reconsider their position on the talks, and to realise that everyone stands to lose if the talks fail once again.

He encouraged participants to “get past the view of recriminations” post- Cancun and to continue the development round of talks.

He stressed that reform of the EU’s controversial Common Agricultural Policy was essential for advancing the talks, and that this also set a challenge for the United States.

“We don’t want aid or food dumping,” he said. “We want Commonwealth countries to produce and sell their own goods and we’ve got to push President Bush on this.” The EU has been cautious so far in its approach to the December talks, and has been biding its time over reformulating trade policy after the collapse of Cancun. In spite of a degree of optimism over the upcoming talks, McKinnon pointed out that there are still “huge hurdles” to overcome in what he described as the “trade apartheid”.

“It is a time of risk, but it is also a time of great opportunity,” he said. “We can either negotiate our position or turn our back on the process. If rich countries open their markets then we could relieve 144 million people from poverty by 2015. We’ve got to show the world that the breakdown in the Doha Round is not irreversible.”

McKinnon urged players to restore faith in the international trading system, saying that it is the “only thing for developing countries.”

He acknowledged that developing countries must play their role. “Developing countries must play their part too in the process and work towards bringing down tariff and non-tariff barriers between themselves.”

But he warned that liberalisation must be a “phased process” so that developing countries can build their capacity and prepare themselves.

McKinnon said Commonwealth leaders would discuss the Doha round when they meet in Abuja, Nigeria, at the beginning of December for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHGOM).

“We will talk about putting the Doha Development Round at the heart of our negotiations,” he said.

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