Trade chiefs to avoid negotiation on Doha round

GENEVA — Members of the 153-nation World Trade Organization will welcome Russia into the fold and discuss ways to open up government procurement contracts to foreign competition at a meeting in Geneva next week, but the 10-year-old Doha round of commerce liberalization won’t be a topic for negotiation.

GENEVA — Members of the 153-nation World Trade Organization will welcome Russia into the fold and discuss ways to open up government procurement contracts to foreign competition at a meeting in Geneva next week, but the 10-year-old Doha round of commerce liberalization won’t be a topic for negotiation.

Diplomats concede that the Doha talks — launched in Qatar’s capital in 2001 with the intention of boosting global trade flows — have morphed from an ambitious undertaking to an embarrassing deadlock, as major trading nations such as Brazil, China and the United States remain divided on key issues.

None are willing to publicly declare Doha dead, but few can muster much motivation to talk up the chances of a deal. Where once there was mention of “windows of opportunity,” one European diplomat recently summed up the sentiment to reporters as: “We are willing to keep a candle burning for Doha.”

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said Friday that ministers would “certainly cover the Doha round” during their working sessions at the three-day meeting starting Thursday. “But there will not be any Doha negotiations,” he added.

Instead, the focus will be on expanding the Government Procurement Agreement, a measure that could add between $80 billion and $100 billion to global trade each year, said Rockwell.

Talks overseen by Swiss diplomat Nicholas Niggli were hinged Friday on whether the U.S. and the EU would accept each others’ offers.

Rockwell said the accession of three new members — Russia, Samoa and Montenegro — would also be a noteworthy event for the global trade body.

Russia — the largest economy still outside the WTO — had been trying to join for 18 years, until a Swiss-brokered deal with Georgia cleared the last major hurdle for Moscow last month.

Trade chiefs have seized on Russia’s membership as a sign of the continued relevance of the WTO, despite its failure to conclude a new global free trade pact.

“I believe the accession to the WTO of Russia and several other nations at the upcoming ministerial meeting will send a strong signal that the multilateral trading system is as relevant today as it has ever been,” said EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht.

De Gucht said he hoped the meeting would help unlock the Doha process and “ensure that the WTO remains a powerful and effective institution to steer global trade in the turbulent waters of the economic downturn.”

In a sign of just how little WTO members can agree on these days, several countries including the United States are planning to voice their disappointment Thursday about the modest anti-protectionists language contained in the meeting’s concluding declaration.

Meanwhile, anti-capitalist protesters — once a mainstay of WTO meetings — appear to be paying little attention to the event.

A call on the left-wing website indymedia.ch to “occupy WTO” had elicited few responses by Friday.

Patrick Pulh, a spokesman for Geneva police, said security measures were being taken.

“We are preparing for anything, but at the moment there are no signs of large demonstrations,” he said.

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