WTO Talks May Have New Life

WTO Director says there has been bilateral movement.

OSLO, Norway (AP) - A flurry of bilateral trade talks could help revive stalled talks on a world trade agreement, where agriculture remains the key stumbling block, World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy said Thursday.

''There is quite a lot of bilateral activity at the start of this year and this is what needs to happen if we want this window of opportunity - springtime 2007 - to be used,'' he said at a news conference in Oslo. ''I am quite glad that all these contacts are taking place. They are a necessary step before we resume any negotiation.''

Talks that began in Doha, Qatar in 2001 aimed at easing global trade restrictions were put on hold last July, largely due to disputes over how much developed countries should reduce farm subsidies and tariffs to allow poorer nations to increase their agricultural exports.

Lamy, in Oslo to address a business congress, met Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere on the first stop of a tour that will include meetings in Berlin and London next week, as well as with U.S. and Brazilian officials.

''For political reasons agriculture holds the key and this is where developing countries are waiting for a signal from more powerful countries,'' said Lamy.

The WTO plan was to lower tariffs on a wide range of goods and services, while focusing specifically on the needs of poorer countries, which have demanded more access to agricultural markets in the developed world. In return, rich countries demand access to developing countries' markets for such things as manufactured goods.

''Why does an economic activity (agriculture) - which is 8 percent of world trade - hold the key to the rest of the agenda?'' asked Lamy. ''This is about politics, it is not only about economics.''

He said farmers have a great influence on politics, partly because 70 percent of the world's population lives in rural areas, and their chance for economic growth is in increased farm exports which is ''precisely the place where they find the biggest obstacles in terms of ... subisdies or tariffs.''

''This debate cuts the WTO into two,'' said Lamy. ''And these debates will not be solved on the occasion of the Doha round.''

Some rich countries, such as Norway, protect agriculture because climate or limited arable land make farming difficult and costly, so that cheap food imported from poor countries is seen as a threat.

Stoere said Norway is prepared to compromise but, ''we are not mandated to negotiate an abolition of Norwegian agriculture.''

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