Time to save Doha is now

Commentator Zanny Minton-Beddoes

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: There was a lot of finger-pointing by all the different nations involved when the Doha global trade talks collapsed last week. Now President Bush is promising to try and revive negotiations. He believes the US economy would get a boost from opening foreign markets, but getting to that goal means finding some way to overcome five years of stalemate, especially over agricultural subsidies. The President and the rest of the world had better act fast, according to writer and commentator Zanny Minton-Beddoes.


ZANNY MINTON-BEDDOES: History shows that deadlines in trade negotiations are broken more frequently than plates at Greek weddings.

The last global trade round, called the Uruguay Round, suffered a similar collapse in 1990. Commentators then fretted about the future of the global trading system. But only three years later the biggest and most far-reaching global trade deal to date was signed.

Perhaps the recent Doha collapse, too, may turn out to be a temporary hiccup. Perhaps. But the world's taking a big gamble and doing so with an extraordinary and outrageous complacency.

In fact, the Doha Round may be rather more difficult to revive than its predecessors. We've got more players involved now. No longer can America and the European Union cook up a deal and dictate it to others.

America's political calendar adds complications. George Bush's "trade promotion authority", whereby Congress promises not to pick apart the details of a trade agreement, runs out next June. Without it, America can't negotiate trade deals.

Democrats tend to be more skeptical of trade and they're likely to gain seats in November's mid-terms. So the president's chances of winning an extension to his trade promotion authority are slim.

All of which suggests that a Doha deal, if there is a deal at all, may be several years down the line. That alone is an outrage. Every delay to a Doha deal means that the gains from freer trade are put off, a shameful outcome especially for the poorest countries.

The end result may be that countries, particularly in Europe and Asia, will move even faster towards bilateral and regional trade deals.

Those deals will divert more trade than they create. And they'll also require fiendishly complicated rules that add costs onto businesses making products from components in many countries.

That may be a particular problem in Asia, the world's fastest growing region. By one estimate Asia will have a noodle bowl of around 70 free trade agreements by the end of this year.

In the rush to regionalism, the US may get left behind in the dust. Last week's collapse may not have hogged the headlines, but it could mark a turning point we will all come to regret.

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Zanny Minton-Beddoes is the US economics editor for The Economist magazine. And in Los Angeles, I'm Mark Austin Thomas. Thanks for joining us. Have a great day.

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