Cancun Trade Summit to Sideline Green Issues

LONDON, United Kingdom, September 5, 2003 (ENS) - With the clock ticking down to the world trade liberalization summit set for Cancun, Mexico September 10 through 14, it is increasingly clear that environmental issues will take a low profile, despite lobbying by the European Union and other countries.

The Cancun talks are a key staging post in the so-called Doha development round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks, due for completion by January 2005. The round is named after the capital of Qatar, where it was launched in 2001.

Recent transatlantic tensions over the trade in genetically modified foods and crops and expected protests by thousands of demonstrators in Cancun could contribute to the meeting becoming "Seattle in the Sun," warns Friends of the Earth Europe, referring to 1999 protests and police brutality in Seattle that prevented the WTO from making much progress during that meeting.

Flashpoints at Cancun will affect negotiations on agricultural trade, as well as industrial tariffs and trade in services.

To the chagrin of European environmentalists, the European Union, which has generally championed a higher profile for environmental issues in WTO talks, is also promoting liberalization of national investment rules.


Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand is Director-General of the World Trade Organization. He began his three year term of office on September 1, 2002. (Photo courtesy WTO)
Hanging over the summit will be America's WTO challenge to European exclusion of new genetically modified crop varieties. The WTO established a panel to consider the claim and nine unrelated complaints on August 29, two weeks after the United States and its allies formally demanded the opening of a dispute procedure.

At Doha, the EU and supporters such as Norway and Switzerland fought hard to get environmental issues on to the agenda. The biggest opposition continues to come from developing countries who suspect the rich countries have a hidden "green protectionist" agenda.

The WTO's Trade and Environment Committee has met several times since Doha, but has made little progress.

An EU promoted attempt to win routine observership status for the secretariats of multilateral environment agreements reached almost complete stalemate in the run-up to the Cancun negotiations. These multilateral agreements cover such issues as climate and ozone layer protection, elimination of persistant organic chemicals, and international movement of hazardous waste.

The chances of Europe winning agreement for the Trade and Environment Committee to spend three sessions next year debating ecolabeling look remote.

Meanwhile, the Doha round's greater environmental significance almost certainly lies in its core agendas of sectoral liberalization, especially of the agriculture sector.

Farm support cuts driven by the Doha round - such as the EU's reform plan for the Common Agricultural Policy launched in January - are also expected to benefit the environment. Talks on cutting fishing subsidies could help to safeguard endangered stocks.

Before leaving for Cancun, EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler said, Europe is going to Cancun with one clear objective - we want to make the Doha Development Agenda a success. In order to do so, we have to continue the reform of the rules for international farm trade, which was started in the Uruguay Round. And I can promise that Europe will play ball. But if we want to move the talks forward, all WTO members have to make an effort, not just Europe. "


Dr. Franz Fischler is European Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries. (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
The EU has shown a lot of flexibility in the last weeks, Fischler said. "Look at our improved offers to do more on opening markets, to do more in terms of reducing trade distorting farm support, to do more in reducing export subsidies. Unfortunately, I have not seen the same flexibility in other camps so far. In fact, I have seen no flexibility on the part of those who shout loudest.

On agriculture, said Fischler, Cancun is not the end point of the farm trade talks, it is the mid-point. The EU will be striving to get agreement on a framework on how to cut trade distorting farm subsidies, export subsidization and tariffs and how to give developing countries a more beneficial deal.

The exact figures and the related rules and disciplines will then be negotiated later, in time to wrap up the entire Doha Development Agenda, including agriculture, at the end of 2004.

WWF, the conservation organization, is calling on trade ministers not to use the Cancun meeting as an opportunity to further extend the scope of the World Trade Organization.

Many governments are coming to Cancun with the aim of imposing a range of new issues, such as increased rights for investors, new rules on government procurement, and ecolabeling, on the WTO agenda. But WWF believes the world trade body is "ill equipped to handle these issues."

It should instead concentrate on what should be its core business, which the WWF sees as facilitating fair trade deals and promoting trade that contributes to sustainable development.

Already part of the controversial trade talks are negotiations on agriculture, services, intellectual property rights and health, industrial goods, the environment, implementation and special and differential treatment for developing countries.


{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email:}