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Agricultural reform tops WTO agenda

Deiss warned Swiss farmers not to oppose reforms Keystone

Switzerland is hoping to make headway in a bitter dispute over agricultural reform at next month’s World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.

This content was published on August 27, 2003 - 17:45

Economics minister Joseph Deiss said he would work to find a compromise between market liberalisation and the protection of Swiss farmers.

The Swiss government on Wednesday unveiled its mandate for the ministerial conference in Cancun, which is aimed at injecting new life into stalled global trade talks.

One of the stickiest issues facing negotiators is agricultural reform. Deiss made it clear that unless progress could be made on this issue, negotiations would stall in other areas.

Developing countries argue that farm subsidies in rich countries – amounting to more than $300 billion a year – and tariffs on imports prevent them from competing on equal terms.

A draft accord thrashed out two weeks ago by the United States and European Union plans to cut subsidies and tariffs. But it failed to impress developing countries who described the deal as “insufficient”.

Impending liberalisation

On Wednesday Deiss warned the nation’s farmers, who are fiercely opposed to any cut in subsidies, that Switzerland could not afford to be excluded from a WTO accord on agricultural reform.

“For Switzerland, it’s unimaginable not to be part of a final consensus,” he said.

Deiss said there would be grave consequences for the Swiss economy - and therefore its farmers - if Switzerland were excluded from an accord.

He added that Switzerland was committed to taking steps towards greater liberalisation of its agriculture sector under a government timetable set for 2004-2007.

And he warned Swiss farmers against obstructing the path to reform and jeopardising the country’s participation in any global trade pact.

The Swiss government is drafting a list of goods it wishes to protect, including various cheeses, meats and spirits, ahead of Cancun.

Doubtful

However, Swiss non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have questioned the government’s commitment to agricultural reform.

“I think Switzerland is very reluctant in the realm of agricultural policy,” Marianne Hochuli, head of trade issues at the Berne Declaration, told swissinfo.

Nevertheless, the NGO supports the Swiss agricultural model where direct support for farmers does not influence market prices.

“Farmers’ salaries are not linked to production, so they don’t overproduce but rather farm in a sustainable way,” Hochuli said at a press conference in Bern.

But NGOs said they would welcome an end to subsidies which, they argue, prevent developing countries from competing on world markets.

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin

Key facts

The Swiss government on Wednesday outlined its negotiating position ahead of the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun, which runs from September 10-14.
Swiss economics minister, Joseph Deiss, said Switzerland would strike a balance between protecting its farmers and agricultural liberalisation.
He warned Swiss farmers against calling a referendum to overturn steps taken by the WTO to cut subsidies and tariffs.
Another key issue in Cancun will be a deal to give developing countries the right to import generic copies of patented drugs.

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