Battle rages over `shambolic' US handling of talks

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The Independent Online
THE TENSION, anger and unruliness in the Seattle streets spilled over into the conference rooms of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit yesterday, as a battle of a different sort began. This one was fought not with tear gas, placards and Molotov cocktails, like the rioting which has shaken the city this week, but with something much more powerful and dangerous - words.

Tempers have frayed because of the difficult working conditions outside, the organisation inside and allegations that the United States was bullying countries into agreement.

A deal may still take shape today, but it will be delayed, and the resentment may linger for some time. President Clinton's visit to Seattle raised the onus on America to broker a deal, but his comments about sanctions against countries without Western-style labour systems enraged some delegates.

Angry attacks on America's handling of the meeting weremounting at the very time when a deal should have been taking shape. America's representative for trade negotiations, Charlene Barshefsky, was hit by a volley of criticism of her chairing of the meeting yesterday, as delegates from most of the nations present claimed the organisation of the talks had been shambolic and that she was trying to strongarm them into a deal, ignoring views the US found inconvenient. Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, called the procedures "medieval" and demanded that the WTO reform its ways of working. "I'm worried about the process," he said.

Delegation after delegation, especially from developing countries, criticised the handling of the meeting in private, attacking both Ms Barshefsky and Mike Moore, the director-general of the WTO, for his inactivity. An attempt by Ms Barshefsky and Mr Moore to pull an agreement together failed, and instead the working groups talked on for many more hours, apparently unable to reach a deal. "They have all asked for extra time," Ms Barshefsky said.

The issue of how to enforce labour standards, one of the most contentious in the summit, looked set to divide developed and developing nations even as the governments at the meeting proclaimed their intention of healing that rift. And it seemed set to be the issue which still stands in the way of a new round of world trade talks, with India adamantly opposing the idea and America insisting on it.

"Today is the day the posturing has to stop and the hard trading has to begin," said the EU spokesman, Peter Guilford, predicting a sleepless night for the delegates.

The WTO's alleged lack of concern for the world's poorest nations has been one of the key concerns of the demonstrators who have filled the streets for the past three days in Seattle. But the other central issue is demands by US labour unions to put sanctions on countries which do not respect Western norms of employment. Squaring that circle was expected to take the negotiators late into the night, and possibly into tomorrow, extending a summit which has already been far too long for most people's patience.

The US is leading the charge for labour standards, an issue raised again by Bill Clinton in his speeches on Wednesday when he arrived for the summit.

If anything, the President's intervention has hampered the chances of success. It has reinforced the feeling of the developing nations, led by India, that they are being bullied. According to delegation sources, Mr Clinton also warned India privately that if labour standards could not be enforced through the WTO, then America would go ahead on its own. Some US officials said that his presence had not helped.

The outlines of a possible package in other areas are relatively clear, even on agriculture. "I am confident we can reach agreement," said Dan Glickman, the American Agriculture Secretary. The US and farm exporting countries led by Australia have eased their insistence that all farm subsidies are abolished, and Europe was softening its insistence that agriculture is completely different from other traded goods.

Europe will give up a chance of having more than a mention of investment in the deal. But it will get some concessions on the environment, while conceding that the WTO can talk about biotechnnology - potentially opening the door to imports of GM foods.

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David Aaronovitch,

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