A day in the life of Peter Mandelson, European Union trade commissioner

3,200 journos, 2,200 NGOs and a rice riot ­ it's enough to turn anyone cranky
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The Independent Online


An alarm clock goes off in a suite in the luxury Conrad hotel on Hong Kong island and Peter Mandelson, one of the three most important men in world trade, begins what could be just another day in the death of the multilateral trading system.

He has been asleep for five hours and ahead of him are 10 meetings spread over at least 18 hours. Welcome to the mad, mad world of global trade negotiations.

Ministers from 150 countries are meeting in a summit aimed at keeping the faltering negotiations on track. But this is no ordinary conference. There are more than 3,200 journalists, about 2,200 non-governmental organisations each with up to 25 representatives, and outside the centre there are hundreds of South Korean farmers calling for the destruction of the WTO.


Given the reception that awaits him, why hurry? He has a working breakfast meeting with key staff. In short, poor countries want big cuts in subsidies and tariffs that protect farmers in wealthy nations. The rich have offered to cut but, receiving no reply, have said they will go further. The developing countries' reply is "no new offer, no deal".

The previous night heralded the first of the "green room" meetings, where selected ministers meet behind closed doors to try to bridge what seem to be insurmountable divides. "What we need are sensible, direct and responsible negotiations of the sort we seemed to have when we talk one-on-one," Mr Mandelson says. "What we get when we get into the green room, instead of negotiating proposals, we get positions and get statements and that won't lead to a breakthrough."

The previous night's green room session started at 10.30pm and went on past midnight. Light by WTO standards but enough to annoy the trade commissioner. "I'm not convinced that it is conducive to have these meetings starting at 10.30pm," he says. "I don't know if the objective is to break down resistance and get agreement by driving negotiators to a state of physical and mental exhaustion. I think it makes everyone very cranky."


Spleen vent, Mr Mandelson goes to a larger meeting with his lead negotiators on the main topics - agriculture, industrial tariffs, services and development issues. The EU is pushing a package of measures aimed at ensuring poor countries take something away with Hong Kong even if no progress is made in the main areas. Even this is looking hopeless in the face of only partial acceptance by the US and Japan.


He arrives at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, a grandiose structure built for the ceremony to mark the end of British rule a decade ago.

He meets Deepak Patel, the leader of the least developed countries (LDC) group, which should be an ally as a beneficiary of Mr Mandelson's development plan. This would force other rich countries to follow Europe's lead, dating to 2001 in abolishing all duties and quotas for LDCs into developed country markets. But he has to tell them other countries, notably the US and Japan, are not prepared to go all the way. The EU is proposing the tariff-free regime to apply to all products and all countries. The US has internal political problems opening the doors to textiles and peanuts. Japan has a problem with textiles and some countries.


It is now time for Mr Mandelson's moment in the sun. Every minister is given the opportunity to make a speech in front of the full WTO membership. Ironically this is perhaps the least important forum in the meeting, overshadowed by green room sessions, bilateral meetings and even press conferences in terms of making a negotiating move. The commissioner uses his full rhetorical power to restate the position of the world's largest economic bloc.

"The EU is implementing significant agricultural reforms, and we are making major negotiating offers in export competition, market access and domestic support," he tells his fellow ministers.

"What we are already doing is ambitious. It has not been matched by any other major member of the WTO. I have been disappointed that others have not seen fit to engage with us on the offer."


Daily press conference. Mr Mandelson is making this one of the set-pieces of the day for the media pack.

He used it earlier in the week to launch a tirade loaded with sarcasm against US policies on food aid. The US delivers food but the EU gives cash, worried that food simply benefits US farmers while lowering prices. He called the US scheme "fake". Today he reveals his development package is in "trouble" and fingers un-named rich blocs for raising objections. He goes on to say his measure would be worth just three days worth of US annual imports. In what will become quote of the day, he says: "If we can't deliver something like this, I wonder what the rest of the world would wonder what we are doing here in Hong Kong."

Mr Mandelson is also garnering a reputation of squashing journalists whose questions he doesn't like. On Tuesday he destroyed a German reporter and now he shows his exasperation at an Indian journalist who asks a question that, in fairness, he has answered twice already.


The EU party returns to the hotel for a catch-up meeting with David O'Sullivan, the francophone Irishman who is director-general of trade at the Europe Commission. Despite being appointed a few weeks ago, Mr O'Sullivan has shown himself to be a firm hand on the tiller. He will report back on bilateral meetings which were held while the commissioner was in the convention centre. They grab a sandwich for lunch.


After lunch is a meeting with another key alliance of developing countries, the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of nations that include a lot of former European countries.

They have had preferential access to Europe's market for some time and fear that cuts in EU tariffs will simply raise all other countries up to their level. Mr Mandelson reiterates that his development package includes aid payments to compensate affected countries.


A delegation of MEPs is in town to keep a watch on the commissioner and report back to their parties and constituencies. Agriculture is obviously a major issue especially for those representing farming areas, who are determined Mr Mandelson does not make further cuts that exceed his mandate.

This time they raise questions about the possible problems with the development package, the lack of offers from other countries and the fact that the focus on agriculture means there was little opportunity for progress this week.


Outside the centre some of the estimated 1,500 South Korean rice farmers who have come to Hong Kong are starting to mass for a second day of demonstrations against the WTO. There is another briefing with officials back at the hotel on a range of issues, including fisheries which - bizarrely - is an industrial product and not part of agriculture.


Having met mainly with friends so far today - the ACP and LDCs - it's now time to meet Mark Vaile, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. Perhaps it is a mark of the contrast between the two countries that the UK's Deputy Prime Minister looks after housebuilding, while his Australian equivalent is responsible for agricultural trade. Unsurprisingly the pair debate farm subsidies.


Time for the highlight of the day - a meeting with Bo Xilai, the Commerce Minister of China. The two have meet frequently in the past, particularly over the botched deal on textile import quotas, but this is the first time they have met in Hong Kong.

Mr Bo stuck to the official view that rich countries need to do more. One of Mr Mandelson's key negotiators says China is like a sleeping tiger in the corner of the chicken shed. "All the other chickens run around in a panic because they know what she could do."


Mr Mandelson meets Kim Hyun Chong of South Korea. He is the chair of the services negotiations, which looks unlikely to be an area of progress this week.


Dinner with his staff back at the Conrad followed by 90 minutes of detailed preparation before tonight's green room meeting. The WTO chief Pascal Lamy will chair the talks on the issues of cotton and bananas.


The green room talks begin. Thursday will show that some progress was made with the US making a new offer on cotton. The meeting continues into the small hours leaving Mr Mandelson able to grab a few hours sleep. He could be forgiven for being a little cranky.