WTO TO MEET IN QATAR, FOR NOW

Byline: Kristi Ellis / With contributions from John Zaracostas, Geneva

WASHINGTON — Although the World Trade Organization said it would move ahead with a meeting of ministers in Qatar despite calls to change the venue for security reasons, a final decision has not been reached and conflicting reports are making the matter all the more uncertain.
Some trade ministers are still continuing to seek a transfer to Singapore, which has emerged as an alternative site for the meeting, scheduled for Nov. 9-13. They are concerned about safety in the Mideast region in wake of U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia, which refuses to turn over Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks on the U.S.
WTO Chairman Stuart Harbinson told a meeting of delegates in Geneva Tuesday that the decision to hold the meeting in Doha, Qatar, would stand unless all 142 members agreed to move it. On the same day, European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said during an Internet chat that he wasn’t ruling out the option to change the meeting.
“Doha, for the moment, could be changed as the circumstances evolve, but the date is clearly fixed,” said Lamy.
A change in venue would be a big blow to the small Persian Gulf nation, which has invested in hotel expansions.
Meanwhile, President Bush and leaders of 21 Pacific Rim countries will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum this weekend in Shanghai and push for the launch of a new round of trade liberalizing talks. Industrialized nations, led by the U.S. and EU, are running up against the clock to gain a consensus on an agenda for a new round.
“We are not yet there in terms of a consensus, but we are making very good progress,” Lamy said.
A consensus on an agenda must be reached among WTO members before a new round can begin. Developing countries, led by India, are calling for major industrialized powers to grant upfront market access on textiles and apparel, ahead of the proposed WTO round. They further claim that the benefits promised in the Uruguay Round, completed in 1994, have not been met.
That is one of the major sticking points in reaching a consensus. But trade officials claim that any renegotiation of previous agreements should not be addressed before a new round.
There are also differences between the industrialized nations. Lamy said the EU is pushing the U.S. to tie environmental provisions to trade in a new round.
“My latest discussions show we are going in the right direction, but no agreement has been reached yet,” he said. “The U.S. understands our concerns, but it still needs to be convinced to put trade and the environment firmly on a new agenda.”

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