The agreement reached at the World Trade Organisation talks in Geneva this weekend elicited a great many plaudits from satisfied trade ministers, mostly in the industrialised world, and only moderate grumbling from the rest - which is by no means the worst of outcomes. A more fitting first response might have been a deep sigh of relief all round. With this deal, concluded hours after the 31 July deadline had passed, global trade talks are just about back on track. The acrimonious collapse of the talks in Cancun last September is in the past, and the latest trade liberalisation process, known as the Doha Round, can recommence.
At best, the next international trade treaty will slash international trade tariffs, throw open markets in less developed countries, help to raise more than 140 million people out of poverty and galvanise economic growth world-wide. The new deadline for agreement is 2007. The EU trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, said yesterday that the end of 2005 was possible. It would be too cynical to say: "Dream on", but agreement by the end of next year looks improbable.
For the reality is that the deal just struck is a highly general draft set of guidelines that covers a bare 17 pages, while the final document will be counted in hundreds. The only tangible achievement in Geneva was agreement to continue negotiating. There is now a framework within which the three highly divisive subjects will be discussed: agriculture, industrial goods and customs procedures. What remain to be agreed are dates, quantities and the specific commodities that will be included. These are more than details. From cotton to rice, from cement and calculators to customs forms, there are many months, perhaps years, of negotiation ahead.
The task is not hopeless. Success will, however, require more and bigger concessions on the part of the rich countries than they have so far been inclined to give. The limited reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy have helped, but were nothing like enough. The US undertaking to phase out subsidies to its own farmers and special tax relief for exporters has also helped. And the developed countries' readiness to scale back their ambitions for open markets across the world - for their own manufactured goods, of course - also lifted a block to further talks.
In this sense, Cancun was not in vain. It showed that the patience of the poorer countries had limits and forced the rich countries to choose: either they had to offer more or there would be no further global trade agreements. In that case, any future progress would be limited to bilateral trade agreements; any thought of a global free market was, essentially, dead. The failure of Cancun also forced the rich countries to recognise that their own self-interest was served by resuming talks, and that there was more that they could give.
How much more will be tested in the coming months. In one respect, the prospect of reaching an acceptable compromise may be brightening. The trend in recent years has been for the richest increasingly to have to play by the rules. Despite much special pleading, the US has lost a series of rulings in the WTO, mostly to the EU. Among developed countries, trade conditions are becoming more equitable. Any new agreement must allow the poorest countries to feel that they, too, are treated fairly. This must start with the negotiations: the practice of closed and selective meetings from which they are excluded and where decisions are "fixed" must cease.
The agreement in Geneva was a day late of the 31 July deadline and vastly more than a dollar short of the necessary commitments. But it has revived the vision of global free trade, and that is no mean feat. As the real bargaining begins, the rich countries must approach their task with considerably more generosity than they took to the opening of the new trade round in Doha three years ago. The time when there is one law for the rich and another for the poor is running out.Reuse content