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-The Whole World's Watching- reporter gets inside



Guardian reporter gets into negotiating sessions - makes things a little
more transparent

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GUARDIAN (London) Friday December 3, 1999

Secret world of the trade deal makers

Secret world of WTO deal makers


John Vidal gets an insider's view of the world trade talks in Seattle

Four tables, each 30 yards long. More than 100 ministers each sit opposite
a diplomat or civil servant. A few observers line two walls. It is
standing room only in Hall 6B.

Of those present, 90% are middle-aged men in dark suits. The women wear
bright scarves. The only signs of male sartorial individuality are one
hat, one bow tie, one pair of dark glasses, one African robe and one pink
waistcoat.

The working party of the WTO's "Singapore Group and Other Issues" is
forbidden territory to the 3,000 journalists in Seattle and the
non-government organisations baying for information about the talks.

But to the 100,000 members of the public who are in Seattle to express
their misgivings about the WTO, and who have been arrested for marching
outside the convention centre in pursuit of accountability and open
negotiations, it is like the far side of the moon.

I have access to the talks because, in its incompetence, the WTO has
issued me with the wrong accreditation. Instead of a green press card they
have given me a nice blue delegate one.

In theory the Guardian is now an official delegate to the talks, can
deliver speeches, introduce policies, and make political trade-offs.

In short, I am a sort of least developed country. Should anyone ask, I
represent either San Serife, a country in the Indian ocean with infinitely
changing geographical position or, preferably, any one of the 30 countries
who are WTO members but who are too poor to send even one delegate to the
talks.

The five WTO working groups are where countries meet each day to thrash
out some common ground. If the gap between them is too large, then they
either enter bilateral agreements with each other or they can be called in
by Michael Moore, the WTO director general, to negotiations where he
personally bangs heads together. If they can get their mobile phones to
work, they can also telephone to put pressure on each other.

It's called international diplomacy.

In the packed hall 6B, the afternoon meeting is trying to establish
whether the WTO should include talks over investments and competition in
the next round of negotiations.

Investment and competition are huge issues, with ramifications for
democracy and sovereignty. If the WTO secretariat can get countries to
reach any sort of agreement, these issues will be on the new trade agenda
and three years from now, after long talks in Geneva, all 134 WTO
countries might have to amend their laws to allow, say, foreign companies
equal access to their markets.

The non-government groups are deeply worried that this would be a charter
for transnational companies to go anywhere they like. They fear that
eventually no country will be allowed to protect its own national
interests. It seems there should be a stirring debate.

The delegates look bored. The gavel bangs and the deputy chair announces
that many ministers have been detained not by protesters but by talks with
President Clinton. But the meeting should go ahead, he says.

"For clarity's sake," he continues, the issues on the table "refer to
paras 12, 25, 26, 32, 33, 51, 52, 41, 56" and a dozen others. No one bats
an eyelid. Everyone - except The Guardian - knows to which paper he is
referring.

"Some basic political decisions need to be taken," he says. The question
is whether member countries are ready to start liberalising and
harmonising their investment and competition laws, or whether they should
continue to debate as they have for the last three years.

The floor is open and the EU is the first to put its flag up to talk. "Our
objective is to launch negotiations. We are not, repeat not, interested in
a face-saving formula. Our only objective is to launch the negotiations."

Chair: "Your position is clear. Japan?"

Japan: "We approach the 21st century. Some countries are concerned about
civil society [issues]. I am confident we can resolve those issues. A
progressive approach is needed. Due consideration should be given to
developing countries, but Japan is opposed to a two- stage approach."

Chair: "Korea?"

Korea: "We cannot accept a two-step approach on investment. It should be
included in the next round. If we succeed in putting investment on our
agenda, our efforts will be more efficient, the credibility of countries
will be enhanced. We have ample evidence that investment should be in the
next round. But we should start with a modest and humble approach."

Most rich countries, including Britain, want the new round to include the
investment and competition clauses. The poor say repeatedly that they are
not ready and it would be unfair because they do not yet have the basic
laws in place.

The richest 29 countries in the world tried to get a major investment
treaty passed in the "multilateral agreement on investment" (MAI) last
year. They failed after campaigning led by more than 600 environment and
consumer groups around the world.

The investment issue was passed to the WTO but was never fully discussed
in the British parliament or other democratic institutions around the
world.

India: "Are we ready? No. Clearly and emphatically we are do not want to
overload the WTO agenda."

Turkey and Switzerland are ready, the latter with reservations. Pakistan
says it will be brief and it is. "Logic and reason demands that it's
futile to go on now," says the minister.

The pace, after 40 minutes, is telling. Several countries are visibly
suffering. The Congo Democratic Republic delegates are pretending to be
asleep. Ireland is reclining alarmingly.

The only sign of life is a Latin American delegation where the minister
could well be in love with his adviser. Her eyes flash. They lean together
and cannot stop whispering.

The chairman arrives from lunch with Mr Clinton and joins the four other
silent men on the top table. He is brisk: "Hong Kong/China?"

The new recruit to the WTO speaks in a clipped British accent: "However
desirable it is to get into negotiations, at this late stage, well beyond
the 11th hour, it is clear that no consensus exists.

The membership is just not ready. Strong resistance continues. We need to
be realistic and accept the fact that we must continue the study group.
Lots more analysis is needed. It's hopelessly unrealistic ..."

New Zealand (a very ripe voice) is not at all persuaded. Cuba is equally
brief but inaudible. Canada is a hardline investment liberaliser.

Time is pressing. Most delegations have complex trade-offs to agree and a
never-ending round of talks. In one hour only 40 countries have been
called to speak.

Outside the hall, the teargas and rubber bullets are being used on
protesters.

In room 6B, faint snoring can now be heard coming from an unidentifiable
observer three down on The Guardian's left. A mobile phone wakes him up
with a start. A female delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo is
swaying slightly.

And so the meeting continues with the poorer countries more or less
against the proposals and the middle-income ones swinging both ways.

The delegate from the Czech Republic booms his approval for further
liberalisation but the US is hesitant, if only because it is worried that
the proposal to liberalise investments and competition might rebound on
its own protectionist attitude towards agriculture.

"We feel it's important not to prejudge the issues," says a squeaky
American voice. "Agreement must be reached at a certain point but a
different approach is needed."

He suggests substituting a "more focused way" and urges the other
delegates to "listen to civil society".

Similarly with competition, the US wants a peer review exercise that would
examine how countries which have already liberalised their investment laws
have fared. Without US support the proposal to bring investment and
competition into the next round looks dead in the water, but this could be
a negotiating position to be traded away for juicy concessions from Europe
later in the week.

Panama's speech brings on an attack of the yawns among delegates. Nigeria,
the Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic are now holding
hands to their mouths. Chattering starts to reverberate

Happily for all, Morocco says his his piece in fewer than 20 words. The
chair congratulates him. "Is Paraguay still with us? No. OK, Australia?"

Australia: "There's real confusion in many of our countries following the
[breakdown of] of the MAI negotiations."

In the far distance, one delegate is blowing bubblegum. One by one the
countries say their bit, but it looks as if the gap is far too wide to be
bridged. The developing countries can breathe a sigh of relief.

Probably.


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