By Hui Min Neo / AFP
Geneva: Ministers from 35 key nations began a critical round of talks on 21 July in an attempt to nail down a global trade deal which has lurched from crisis to crisis for seven years.
But amid a background of tension, an Egyptian minister expressed confidence that agreement could yet be snatched from the session precisely because expectations of success were low.
The so-called Doha Development Round of negotiations was launched with great fanfare in the Qatari capital in November 2001.
It has been deadlocked as developed and developing countries show brinkmanship over concessions on issues such as agricultural subsidies and tariffs on industrial goods.
Any draft agreement thrashed out here would then have to go before all 152 members of the World Trade Organization.
An already difficult situation was not helped over the weekend when a remark by a Brazilian minister, comparing the tactics of advanced countries to the methods of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, sparked a row with Washington’s representative.
However, minutes ahead of the formal opening of the talks on 21 July, Egyptian Trade and Industry Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid expressed optimism that a deal could be forged this week.
“I’m optimistic because people expect nothing out of this week — because when expectation is so low, people are becoming more relaxed to negotiate. I can see it all around,” he said.
Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, made his contentious comment at a news conference on Satuday in response to claims by the industrialised countries that they had offered concessions on agricultural tariffs.
He said he was reminded of a remark by Goebbels that “if a lie is repeated enough times, it becomes the truth.”
That prompted a sharp response from the office of US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
“At a time when we try to find a successful outcome to the negotiations, this kind of statement is highly unfortunate,” her spokesman Sean Spicer said.
“For someone who is a foreign affairs minister, he should be aware of some sensitivities,” he added. Amorim’s press office said he had “no intention of apologising.”
His intention had not been to make comparisons between individuals, but “to show that propaganda can be superimposed on historical facts.”
Developing countries have been pressing for lower farm subsidies and agricultural tariffs in the developed world.
Industrialised states are demanding in return that developing countries make their markets more accessible to imported services and manufactured goods.
The man with the job of squaring the circle this week will be WTO Director General Pascal Lamy of France.
He has argued that a Doha deal could inject between 50 billion and 100 billion dollars each year to the world economy and be of enormous benefit to poor countries.
For the meeting to be a success, the WTO’s 152 members will have to agree on “modalities” — the key percentages for tariff cuts that would form the basis for any comprehensive deal.