Will everyone say No to the WTO?

The Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty brought the issue of the WTO Doha round of negotiations to the public attention. Farmers took to the streets of Dublin to protest the negotiations and warn the country that the beef industry would be ‘decimated’ with a loss of rural jobs and €2bn. The issue rapidly became mixed with the debate on the Lisbon Treaty and the concern about the negotiating position of EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson which resulted in him becoming the poster boy for the No campaign.

At the last minute the government promised the farmers that all would be well if Lisbon went ahead – Ireland would still have its veto and use it on any unsatisfactory Doha agreement. Yet the results from rural areas in the referendum suggest many farmers simply did not believe the Government and remained fearful of the Doha negotiations.

The Doha round began in 2001 and aimed to make globalisation more inclusive and help the world’s poor, in particular by cutting barriers and subsidies in farming. The key issues under negotiation are farm subsidies, farm tariffs and industrial goods. So far the negotiations have been unsuccessful. The 2006 deadline for agreement was missed with problems centred on the issue of state aid given to key industries in the west and in particular the US/EU farming subsidies and tariffs.

In May fresh draft plans were produced by the WTO which is hoping to achieve an agreement by the end of the year. WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy linked the success of the negotiations to a solution to the current world food crisis saying that agreement would offer

“medium to long-term solutions to the current crisis…We all aim to substantially lower barriers to trade in agricultural products and diminish levels of trade distorting subsidies, particularly in developed countries that have hampered food production and investment in agriculture in many developing countries.”

In response leading NGOs, farming associations, trade unions and social movements issued an open letter stating that a Doha agreement would in fact make the situation worse. Instead they called for:

1. Governments and communities to have a range of tools at their disposal to build resilient food and agricultural systems that are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
2. Volatile agricultural prices to be addressed through national policies and global actions to avert food crises and to ensure small producers a reliable and steady income.
3. Governments to establish safety nets and public distribution systems to prevent widespread hunger.
4. A reform of the food aid system, with donor countries ending their practice of dumping their surplus food products on developing nations and instead providing cash so that governments and aid agencies can buy food locally.

The fear is that increased free trade in farming will in fact mean increased power to the already powerful “multinational agribusiness” leaving local farmers around the world unable to manage control their own destinies and reducing the ability of developing nations to protect their populations from hunger in the face of food shortages and rising prices. Free trade has little interest in food security, despite Pascal Lamy’s claim that the best way to end the food crisis is to encourage economic growth and eliminate poverty so that the poor would be able to afford a decent diet.
For Ireland’s farmers, the fears of a deal that will cut their valuable subsidies and open up the EU to cheap foreign agricultural products have not disappeared because the No campaign won the Lisbon vote. Nothing has changed in relation to the WTO except that Ireland’s position in Europe has perhaps been weakened. However, it maybe that the Doha round was never a threat and that seven years of negotiations will result in no deal.