RIP the WTO 'if we don't secure a deal'

Alan Johnson warns poor countries will suffer if US does not give way on cotton subsidies
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The World Trade Organisation is doomed unless the stalled development round of talks can be rescued within the next two months, warns Britain's Secretary of State for Trade.

Alan Johnson told The Independent on Sunday that failure would bring to an end the era of multinational trade negotiations - something that can only harm the poorest nations of the world still further. "If we don't secure a deal in this round then there is a big question mark over the WTO. If that fails then it's back to bilateral [negotiations], which can only benefit the rich, developed nations."

Settling for what is on the table now "will do diddly-squat for world poverty", he added.

Mr Johnson, the former union boss who can claim to have helped write the book on negotiating ploys, is dismayed that the 11th hour has passed without the players showing their cards. A time-limited "fast-track" to push the necessary legislation though the US Congress means midnight - the very last deadline for the development round - is this June.

And after the failure to reach agreement at the ministerial summit in Hong Kong, most observers agree the last glimmers of hope will die unless progress can be made in two meetings in London next month.

"The prize is still there," Mr Johnson said. "Hong Kong wasn't a roaring success but neither was it a failure - we kept the train on the track. There are three issues to be tackled; market access in the EU; domestic subsidies in the US; and the developing world's need to open up industry."

Although the US, EU and the developing world have each made an offer, none is acceptable to the others, hence the deadlock. "There needs to be a choreography for people to make conditional offers and to find a forum in which to do that. It's creating that 'final moment' when people play their cards."

Mr Johnson said Tony Blair is pushing for another leaders' summit to "galvanise" the process, but he wants to hold off such a huge gathering until a deal is within reach.

"Tony Blair is particularly keen [for a meeting]. But those of us in the deep end think there is a role for heads of government but not now. They can only come in to get us through that last bit."

Mr Johnson is too canny to lay the blame exclusively at anyone's door but there is no mistaking his frustration at the US intransigence over its cotton subsidies. "Cotton is hugely important. America is spending $5bn [£3bn] a year subsidising its cotton farmers and dumping it in poor countries. It's so clearly wrong. If we had a fair price for cotton, it would increase exports from sub-Saharan Africa by 75 per cent."

But he is clear that it is not just the US that needs to go the extra mile on agricultural support, and the tensions between Britain and France are well known.

He backs the EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, who has said that a more generous offer from the EU requires greater industrial liberalisation from the developing world. But he is pushing for the EU to start working on Europe's "bottom line".