Accord reached on ending farm export subsidies

Biggest trade issues remain unresolved

December 19, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HONG KONG -- Trade ministers representing almost all the world's governments reached a deal last night that sets a deadline for wiping out subsidies of agricultural exports by 2013, realizing a goal that U.S. negotiators have been pursuing for two decades.

The final declaration from the talks, which resolved several issues that have stood in the way of a global trade agreement, also requires industrialized countries to open their markets to goods from the world's poorest nations, a goal of the United Nations for many years.

The declaration gives fresh impetus for negotiators to try to finish a comprehensive set of global free-trade rules by the end of next year, in time for President Bush to submit it to Congress before his special negotiating authority expires.

"I now believe it is possible, which I did not a month ago," said Pascal Lamy, the World Trade Organization's director general.

But the declaration does not settle the biggest trade issues facing the WTO's members.

Some of these issues were barely discussed here because the sides are so far apart. They include lowering tariffs on agricultural and manufactured goods, and limiting domestic farm subsidies.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said that more negotiations are needed, noting, "on the toughest issues, it just kicks the can down the road."

Other provisions in the declaration include a broad agreement to ban fishing-industry subsidies that contribute to overfishing; help for impoverished cotton-growing countries in Africa; and a plan for the United States, the European Union and Japan to provide several billion dollars a year in aid to developing countries to help them compete in global trade.

With the exception of an end to cotton-export subsidies, which is already moving through Congress, American commitments in the declaration will not require congressional action until a comprehensive trade deal is ready for a vote.

All of the WTO's 149 member nations and customs territories approved the declaration. The leaders of delegations from Cuba and Venezuela reserved the right to exempt their countries later from new rules being negotiated for service industries like banking, insurance and telecommunications.

As with many trade deals at the ministerial level, the declaration papers over differences that could prove troublesome later. The agreement to end agricultural export subsidies by 2013, which was reluctantly accepted by the European Union, calls for a "substantial" part of these subsidies to be eliminated well before then but does not specify what this means.

Similarly, the ban on fishing subsidies does not define overfishing. And the agreement on cotton postpones the question of how quickly the United States should lower its subsidies, which West African nations blame for depressing the prices that their farmers receive.

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