Leading article: The trade talks are over. What now?

The breakdown of the world trade talks in Geneva yesterday is profoundly disappointing to those – including our own Prime Minister – who claimed them as the most important economic negotiations of the new century. Indeed the talks, started in 2001, have lasted most of this century. Little wonder that some of their particpants still hope that they can be revived after a summer pause.

Perhaps. But it is doubtful. By then, the United States will be in the full swing of an election which could produce a more protectionist president. But the current economic slowdown will still be under way, changing the politics as well as the economics of opening up countries to imports. That has been the difficulty of these negotiations – the so-called Doha Round of talks between the 35 member countries of the World Trade Organisation. They have lasted so long.

When they began, those seven long years ago, the world was much simpler and the issues appeared clearer. Doha was meant to take the individual improvements made in the previous decade towards a dismantling of tariffs and trade barriers between rich and poor and wrap up a grand new deal that would propel the process of globalisation a great leap forward. Since then, however, the whole map has been altered by the industrial take-off of China and India. While the developed countries, led by the US, have pressed even harder for access to these rapidly-developing markets, they in turn have proved much tougher in their negotiations, arguing that the western nations were able to grow rapidly only with a degree of initial protection of their markets. So must the developing world.

It is on this point more than any other that the talks appear to have foundered. A tragedy? Not necessarily. The hopes imposed on Doha were always greater than the practice would bear. The slowdown that would have made an agreement more timely economically also made it politically more difficult. There is still plenty that can be achieved at the bilateral and regional level. Is it the end of the story? Again not necessarily. Good progress had been made in Geneva, not least in the agricultural concessions offered by the EU and the US. The point is to try and protect the weakest and most vulnerable while the rich – and the fast-enriching – sort out matters between themselves.