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Lamy claims progress towards meeting Third World concerns

by Brian Kenety

Brussels, 4 Dec 2000 (IPS) -- One year after the fierce demonstrations in Seattle and the collapse of talks towards launching a new World Trade Organisation (WTO) round of multilateral trade negotiations, the European Community’s Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy, noted Monday ‘progress’ towards meeting the chief concerns of developing countries and civil society.

“I think that a year after Seattle, we ought to put our heads together and draw conclusions. First of all, the developing countries did not find that their fears and concerns were sufficiently dealt with,” EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy told a news conference in which he reviewed various steps the Union has taken to address these issues.

“What has happened over the last year has further convinced me that we need rules on a multilateral trading system, to make it effective, but also to make it fairer,” he said.

Lamy noted that since the failure of the WTO Ministerial-level talks last December, the EU had argued for a new approach to providing developing countries with technical assistance and building their capacity for trade.

Whilst acknowledging a need for more precise and transparent procedures within the WTO itself, given developing countries’ belief that the system favours the wealthy nations, Lamy said that the EU’s immediate goal was not to reform the system, but to help the least developed countries better participate in the existing system.

“We need to focus on the most marginalised countries and the reasons for that marginalisation - so, the obstacles that the poorest among them find in selling to our markets,” he said.

In that context, Lamy pointed to the EC’s “Everything But Arms” initiative in September, which would grant duty-free, quota-free access of non-military goods to EU markets for the 48 least developed countries.

If ratified by the 15 EU member states, the initiative would go further in terms of granting market access than any proposal of the “Quad Group” - the EU, the United States, Canada and Japan - which together account for over half of world trade, EC official said.

While Eurostep, a Brussels-based coalition of European non-governmental development organisations, has welcomed the proposal “as a necessary, albeit insufficient, step to allow LDCs to benefit from international trade”, it notes that EU farmers’ organisations are waging an intense campaign against it and success is not guaranteed.

Lamy has often stressed that the Union believes that duty-free access alone is not enough to enable the poorest countries to benefit from liberalised trade.

“There are capacity problems, the ability of the developing countries to actually apply the WTO rules. We’ve tried to ensure that those among them who say they haven’t digested the Uruguay Round yet (the previous round of talks) and therefore cannot possibly go on to a new round, we’ve got to give them that space,” the EU trade commissioner told reporters Monday.

He noted that alongside the meeting of African trade ministers in Libreville, Gabon in November, the EU had organised a meeting to discuss and explore concrete measures on capacity-building, “the first of its sort”.

The ability to adapt to WTO rules will take time, noted Lamy. “We are prepared to give them that space. But (capacity) in itself is not a reason not to look at a future round at all. We’ve got to launch that process,” he said.

The EU is keen on launching a comprehensive round that will tackle not only the nuts-and-bolts issues of market liberalisation, but also environmental and labour standards. But developing countries fear industrialised countries have a “hidden agenda”, that they will invoke such standards to block cheap agricultural and textile goods.

“The issues of core labour and environmental standards will not disappear from the multinational negotiating table. The question is how do we address that,” said Lamy.

On the issues of transparency and equitable participation within the WTO - a major concern of civil society groups from the North and South - he said: “Concerns about democratic process, transparency, have to begin at home; hence my efforts to involve the European Parliament in commercial policy.

“The WTO needs to be reformed, that is quite clear. And we will stimulate that debate at the right moment”.

Pressed as to when that “moment” might come, Lamy said: “Our first priority is to get the round going. We don’t wish in any way to disturb the preparation phase, because we would be focusing on the institution - which is important - but we would be concentrating too much of our energy at the wrong time ... transparency is, of course, the most important thing. And we hope to have this in the whole process”.

Lamy has said that dialogue with civil society is a part of guaranteeing greater transparency and democratisation as far as the EU is concerned.

On Monday, he noted that the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, has set up four issues groups involving civil society actors since last April: one on access to health, one on trade in services, one on agriculture, and one on environment and sustainable development.

A fourth round of consultations between the Commission, civil society and business representatives will take place from 6-7 December in Brussels. It will end consultations on environment and sustainable development, services, agriculture and health issues. From January 2001, consultations will focus on competition, investment and WTO reform.

“I think everyone knows now that we have a structure for debate with civil society; we had begun that process before Seattle and it has been stepped up since,” said Lamy.

The world’s largest trade union body, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), in a statement last week prepared in close co-ordination with the International Trade Secretariats and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD, called on the WTO to develop a comprehensive development agenda to ensure that people in developing countries benefit from world trade.

“The agenda must include, for instance, an agreement on debt relief, reforms of the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, special and differential treatment for developing countries and revision of the intellectual property provisions of the WTO agreement to protect the poor in developing countries,” said the Brussels-based ICFTU.

The EU is currently trying to better co-ordinate trade, development, health and external policies with the overall goal of eradicating poverty. Lamy was keen to point out that accelerating action against communicable diseases and, thus, promoting increased access to medicines, is one of the key priorities for the Commission, which sponsored a Roundtable on Communicable Diseases in September.

“The most important problem at the moment in many of these (developing) countries is AIDS ... The Commission has on the table an integrated policy on three pillars: research, healthcare infrastructure and access to (affordable) medications,” said Lamy.

He has said that at a political level there is considerable interest still in launching a round even amongst those members which were earlier sceptical, but that discussions with developing countries show that any round must have development right at its heart.

In a speech before NGOs last month, Lamy said that is where the EU must focus its efforts. “In helping the poorest countries integrate better and not get left behind by the global economy, in opening up their trade prospects, and in making a better contribution to good governance, stability and poverty alleviation. Within its own albeit limited sphere of influence, we can try to do more in these areas through the WTO.”

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