November 2001, and in a moment of global solidarity following the 9-11 attacks on the United States, the members of the World Trade Organisation got together in Doha for a new round of trade talks.
The aim was to reduce subsidies and import duties so poorer countries could benefit from global business, so attacking the breeding ground for terrorism.
America’s trade representative at the time, Robert Zoellick claimed there was no longer a North-South divide. “We have been very strong proponents in terms of following up in the Uruguay Round, in terms of trying to reduce, eliminate export subsidies, substantially reduce domestic subsidies that are distorting of trade, and also increase market access,” Zoellick said.
But the World Trade Organisation was no longer a club of a few dozen nations, and seven years on, the Doha round has been marked more by failure than consensus – more than 150 states embroiled in fixing the rules for trading in thousands of products.
Of industry, services and agriculture which form the three main areas of negotiation, it is agriculture which has led to the biggest advances.
Northern countries have accepted a withdrawal of all export subsidies by 2013. Negotiators also want the biggest subsidisers to cut the amount they give to help agricultural production.
They want the EU to reduce grant aid by between 75 and 85 per cent; Japan and the United States by two-thirds to three quarters; and other developed nations by between 50 and 60 per cent.
Farming might only account for 8 per cent of world trade, but it’s a vital sector for the economies of emerging nations, desperate to export more for less. And that’s why some countries, like Ireland for instance, see the liberalisation of trade to be a threat.
Dick Roche, Irish Minister for European Affairs, said: “Agriculture is a very important industry in Ireland. No fundamentally important industry can be used as bargaining chip”.
The European Union and America are hoping to make gains in talks on manufactured goods, in the hope that they will help reduce the sting of the politically painful farm trade reforms at home.
They are unhappy at exceptions given, notably, to China and Brazil, which they believe give undue protection to their emerging motor industries.