Move to reform WTO

Britain's Trade Secretary calls for far-reaching changes to end deadlocks at the World Trade Organisation
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STEPHEN BYERS, the Trade & Industry Secretary, is driving a campaign to reform the World Trade Organisation after this month's failed talks in Seattle. He has sent letters to Pascal Lamy, EU Trade Commissioner, all the EU trade ministers and a variety of other "like-minded countries" such as Australia, Egypt and South Africa, setting out an agenda for change.

The British delegation were horrified at how the talks collapsed into "anarchy" at Seattle, and some officials were privately critical of Charlene Barshefsky, the US Trade Secretary, who chaired the WTO discussions.

Many delegates believed Ms Barshefsky was abrasive towards representatives of the developing nations as the meeting descended increasingly into chaos and anti-American recriminations.

"I'm afraid she lost it towards the end simply because she was not only chairing the US delegation but trying to act as honest broker as chairman of the talks. We should never have a large country such as the US, with all its own agenda to follow, chairing the WTO talks again. It just doesn't work and we should go back to having smaller countries taking the chair," said one source.

Mr Byers is understood to believe that most of the sticking points in Seattle - such as agricultural trade, labour conditions in developing countries, and the need for better labelling of consumer products - are likely to remain until after the US presidential elections next year.

But Britain wants the WTO reformed by then in order to be ready to tackle those problems as soon as the new president is appointed. Such a change would give the talks the fresh impetus they badly need.

The letters written by Mr Byers call for far more openness at the WTO, and state the importance of making its documents available to the public for the first time.

There is also a suggestion that disputes should be settled through a more open process, and that pressure groups, such as Greenpeace and the World Development Movement (fair trade and human rights lobbyists), as well as trade unions and business associations, should be involved and consulted further in the talks.

The veto that is available to all of the 135 member countries could also be abolished under Mr Byers' scheme, to reduce the number of damaging deadlocks and as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of the entire decision- making structures. In future, elected politicians, rather than officials, could also be given more of a role in the WTO, through an assembly of parliamentarians that would meet regularly to discuss problems.

In an arrangement based possibly on the United Nations Security Council, ministers might be chosen to represent blocks of countries' interests rather then just their own national concerns. At present, there is also the problem of WTO ministers meeting only every two or three years at huge conferences, such as Seattle, where progress is often difficult because of the large number of delegations attending.

Mr Byers has also written to Mike Moore, the WTO director general, and former prime minister of New Zealand, about giving extra technical assistance to developing nations; Britain and other EU nations want the budget increased five-fold.