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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Africa starves, Mandelson spins

Excellent piece on AFP today, describing how Peter Mandelson attempted to spin his way out of the embarrassing situation of the EU not offering any new concessions on tariff reductions at the Doha trade talks.

Mandelson yesterday ‘unveiled’ what appeared to be a more generous offer on market access to the EU, proposing to reduce farm tariffs by 60 per cent - up from the existing offer of 54 per cent. Mandelson presented his offer as "a very considerable improvement on our own part."

That was quickly dismissed by Brazil however as “mere propaganda”, with Foreign Minister Celso Amorim describing it as "meaningless... purely statistic gimmickry."

Mandelson’s position then began to unravel completely, with even fellow EU commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel (heading up Agriculture) admitting that her colleague’s offer was "nothing new".

Next, French trade minister Anne-Marie Idrac waded in, helpfully explaining that the difference between the two figures was merely down to whether tropical products were included in the tariff cut calculations or not. "Was there new progress, new percentages? The answer is no. Peter Mandelson this morning had clarified... what technical discussions have come up with – nothing more, nothing less," Idrac said. (In the run-up to this week's negotiations, the French government had already stated very clearly that it would accept no further concessions on the European farm support regime.)

Mandelson, by this point firmly on the defensive, was forced to concede that the 60 percent proposal was actually a "reiteration" of the EU's existing position. "The more we clarify, the clearer it becomes exactly what we are offering in this round," he told journalists.

Thanks for the clarification Peter…

It would also be interesting to have some more clarity on whether the EU is still proposing that 8 per cent of its tariff lines be given special treatment - ie. a lower rate of tariff reduction compared to other goods. The EU position on so-called ‘sensitive’ goods was one of the key issues that led to the collapse of talks in 2006 (the US was calling for 1 per cent of tariff lines to be exempted). But according to Japanese reports, Tokyo and Brussels have already agreed to ‘work together’ to maintain the 8% exemption in this round of talks.

Many of the products deemed sensitive in the EU are those exported by the developing and least-developed countries. The Commission for Africa has noted that “if only two percent of agricultural tariff lines are designated as sensitive… three quarters of global welfare gains will be lost.” The US, Canada and the Cairns Group also separately analysed the EU’s proposal, in the weeks after 28 October 2006, finding that designating 8% of goods as “sensitive” would effectively block all exports of interest to developing countries in the EU market.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s farce suggests the Commission is more interested in propaganda than in proposing real pro-development solutions on trade.

Perhaps this emphasis on spin is a tactic designed to pre-empt a breakdown in the talks this week, allowing the EU to shift the blame onto other negotiating parties and divert media attention away from its own intransigence. This was exactly the strategy that was followed last time talks broke down in 2006. But failure this week would be far more serious, and would all but kill off Doha.

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