Socialist Worker

Stalingrad for the WTO

For millions of people in the developing world, no deal would be better than a bad deal at the forthcoming WTO talks, writes Amelia Alvarez

Issue No. 1977

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

The news that Tony Blair has taken it upon himself to drive forwards the attempts to reach a deal at next month’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) gives a good guide to what sort of agreement is on offer.

The WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong will consider measures that would be very damaging to the world’s poor. In some ways a deal on the terms laid down by the US and the European Union (EU) would be worse than the one envisaged — and blocked — at the Seattle meeting in 1999.

The EU is insisting that poor countries open their markets to “free competition”—multinational despoliation—through the Gats process. Gats, the General Agreement on Trade in Services, sweeps away all barriers to the multinationals in many sectors of the economy.

The EU’s hitlist of sectors to be included in Gats includes postal services, many medical services, radio and TV services, sewage services, education, bus and rail transport, and more.

As if that were not enough, the EU is demanding that the poorest “liberate” services at three times the rate of the rich countries.

While the EU is ready to increase the number of “open” sub-sectors of the economy by an average of 31 percent (from an average of 106 sub-sectors to 139 out of 163), it wants developing countries to increase the number of “open” sub-sectors by an average of 86 percent (from an average of 50 to 93).

This directly contradicts the WTO principle of “less than full reciprocity”, which states that developing countries should liberalise less rapidly than developed countries.

The gun to the head of the poor is that, unless they accept such a deal, there will be no movement on agricultural tariffs.

This is the holy grail of development, or so we are told.

The dream is that if, say, the US stops subsidising its cotton farmers, the EU no longer shovels cash into agribusiness and barriers to imports are dismantled, then African and Asian farmers will be able to sell their exports to the richer countries.

In fact it’s an empty dream. In the coffee market there is essentially free trade because neither the EU nor the US grows coffee.

Here you see a desperate struggle between poor countries and the “middle ranking” countries to outdo each other. This has led to a collapse in prices and spreading poverty.

Another key battleground is negotiations over Non-Agriculture Market Access (Nama). This proposes the elimination of barriers to trade on all products not covered by the WTO agreements on agriculture or Gats.

Many of the talks around Gats and agriculture are stalled, but the negotiations over Nama are being rushed forward.

An agreement over Nama would mean significant trade liberalisation, open industrial sectors to the multinationals in the interest of the world’s richest countries.

In this context there are three principles which I, and a growing number of people, believe are important — and I should say they are not agreed at all by many NGOs.

  • There will be no automatic unity between the poorest and the “middle” countries. The G20 includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey as well as the US and the EU powers.

    The richest may sometimes clash with the less rich, but at other times the G20 will carve up a deal and let everyone else hang. So the poorest must appeal to their own unity and the power of popular forces across the world.

    The real allies of the poor are the anti-globalisation movement, the anti-debt movement, the anti-war movement and the movement in solidarity with Venezuela.

  • There will be a wave of propaganda that a failure of trade talks will hurt the poor. We must insist that no deal in Hong Kong would be much better than the deal being offered. What might be helpful comes at too high a price and most of what is on offer is harmful.
  • We must insist on asymmetric deals — where the rules applying to the rich are different to those for the poor. The rich are much more powerful than the poor and will crush them with a level playing field. Going against all the common sense of trade deals, we must oppose equality and demand inequality in favour of the poor.

So, on to Hong Kong, and a battle. When we look at previous WTO gatherings, such as Seattle and Cancún, it is very important to underline the role played by civil society in derailing these meetings. We hope to play the same role in Hong Kong.

One of the slogans launched for the current campaign, “Hong Kong will be the WTO’s Stalingrad”, sums up our feelings.

Amelia Alvarez is an activist around trade issues who is involved in Global Call to Action against Poverty. Go to

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Sat 19 Nov 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1977
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