Dumping trade

14 December 2005

Two days of arm-twisting and back-scratching have passed, and the Hong Kong ministerial is heading into the final four days of arm-breaking and back-stabbing.

Throughout the summit at the Hong Kong Convention Centre - now known to locals as "Fortress Wan Chai" - the rub has been agriculture. Will the US agree to take the boot off poor cotton farmers? Will the EU grant Brazil access to its beef market? Will the pair of them and Japan stop paying their farmers huge wads of cash in exchange for political donations and a kind word ahead of elections?

According to senior figures in the rich-country trade delegations, a deal on farm subsidies is about as likely as Peter Mandelson romping home in the 3.30 at Walthamstow tomorrow. The outside chance would be a sudden deal at the EU summit that begins Brussels tomorrow. Were Europe to spring an offer to cut domestic aid to farmers, the domino effect in the Hong Kong talks could be huge.

The prospect for the World Trade Organisation is failure to secure a deal on the Doha round. Many will cheer that failure. Others will lament it as the passing of the one moment when the world's trading behemoths were - in rhetoric at least - committed to development. And the vast majority will say they had little idea it was happening in the first place.

But regardless of that happens here, consciousness of the impact of the tiniest adjustment to global trade rules on livelihoods is altering. In vernacular languages, I'm told, "free trade" translates as "dumped trade". As one Brazilian insider says: "The way globalisation happens has changed forever." 

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