November 23, 2005

Commonwealth leaders to press Blair on trade deal

By Madeline Chambers

LONDON (Reuters) - Leaders of Commonwealth countries will
urge Britain's Tony Blair this week to persuade the European
Union to cut farm subsidies and pave the way for a world trade
deal next month.

The biennial meeting of the 53-member group of mainly
former British colonies starts on Friday in Malta, less than
three weeks before global powers gather in Hong Kong to try to
reduce barriers on world trade.

Hopes for a December agreement that would boost the global
economy and lift millions out of poverty are fading, although
trade negotiators say a deal may be clinched before the talks'
final deadline at the end of 2006.

"Trade is at the top of our minds," said a diplomat from an
African former British colony. "Developing countries in the
Commonwealth are very worried about Hong Kong and Blair can
expect a hard time over it."

Blair has made tackling African poverty a priority of his
presidency of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations
and the 25-member European Union.

Rich countries have agreed to cut debt and boost aid but
developing countries say more action is required on trade, both
to make markets in rich countries more accessible and to remove
subsidies which distort prices.

"We welcome the decisions of the G8 but more needs to be
done," said a spokesman for South Africa's Foreign Ministry.


Commonwealth countries want the EU to respond to a U.S.
proposal to slash agricultural subsidies, which campaigners say
skew trade, and drop demands for developing countries to open
up their non-farm goods and services.

"Blair can do a substantial amount since he is president of
the EU. The Commonwealth can ask him to use that to ensure the
EU does more," said Tim Rice, adviser on trade at Action Aid.

However, some EU members appear intransigent. France, a
major beneficiary of EU farming programs, seems unlikely to
give ground in time for a breakthrough in Hong Kong.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon told Reuters
last week leaders would warn rich countries that failure to
give poorer countries greater access to global markets would
signal indifference to poverty and could undermine democracy.

Some African, Pacific and Caribbean countries are angry
about EU plans to cut sugar import subsidies by nearly 40

Countries such as Guyana and Mauritius say the price cut
will hit their sugar-dependent economies and they plan to lobby
Blair to use his influence on the issue.

While leaders will pile pressure on rich countries, they
will strike no deals: the club represents about 1.8 billion
people, 30 percent of the world's population, but has no power.

McKinnon wants to stress the importance of respecting human
rights and has urged all members to sign global protocols on
civil, political, social and economic rights.

This could embarrass several countries including Singapore
which may come under pressure not to execute an Australian for
drug smuggling, as it plans to do in December.