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Tough talks on trade expected in Hong Kong

Anti-globalisation activists have gathered in Hong Kong

(Keystone)

The sixth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) opens on Tuesday in Hong Kong. Agricultural tariffs look set to dominate the talks.

The goal of the 149 nations represented at the meeting, including Switzerland, is to pave the way for the conclusion of the Doha round of trade negotiations by the end of 2006.

Analysts say the accord has to be finalised by mid-2007 at the latest, which is when President Bush's "trade promotion authority" expires.

After that time any deal would have to be approved by Congress.

The current round of trade talks should have concluded in 2004, with the aim of liberalising trade to benefit developing countries.

But talks have been blocked for months over agricultural tariffs, which represent less than ten per cent of global trade.

In Switzerland, as elsewhere, non-governmental organisations - development aid, anti-globalisation and environmental groups - are demanding a return to the initial goal of the talks.

They received a positive sign when, just before the meeting got underway, WTO member states agreed a provisional deal to allow some poor countries to import generic drugs.

G20 and G10

Brazil, a leading member of the so-called G20 group of emerging nations, and Australia, of the agricultural exporting Cairns Group of countries, want to improve free trade.

They are opposed by the G10 group of net food importing countries, including Switzerland, which wants to protect small farm holdings.

Roughly speaking, the European Union is close to the Swiss position and the United States supports the food free traders.

The Swiss delegation in Hong Kong is willing to make concessions on agricultural reform to the tune of SFr2 billion ($1.55 billion).

And Swiss farming interests expect that the country's negotiators will not give more ground.

The economics minister, Joseph Deiss, confirmed that "agriculture will not be the only focus of discussions".

But he stressed that without progress on the other dossiers (non-agricultural products, services and regulations), Switzerland would not budge on agriculture.

Switzerland's main business association, economiesuisse, made a last-minute appeal to the Swiss negotiators, reminding them of what they consider to be the real priorities: liberalisation of the services and manufacturing sectors.

swissinfo, Pierre-François Besson in Hong Kong

Key facts

The sixth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization takes place in Hong Kong from December 13 to 18.
The meeting is expected to pave the way for a conclusion to the Doha round of trade talks which were launched in 2001.
The Swiss delegation is headed by Economics Minister Joseph Deiss.

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