December 17, 2005

Point taken

Maybe the French Agriculture minister had a point after all. Chuck Grassley, the powerful head of the US Senate's Agriculture Committee, has just said the US Congress is unlikely to approve the deal being hammered out in Hong Kong. After 48 hours of intensive, sleep-deprived negotiating, his comments did not go down well here.

Credit where it's due: a lot of European delegates (off the record) and lefty NGOs (on the record) here have been questioning US Trade Representative Rob Portman's ability to deliver the kind of deal he's been promising, noting that he seems to have been going well beyond his Fast-Track negotiating mandate and making promises to the developing world the US congress would never agree to.

It's a slightly bizarre argument, however, because the draft Grassley is pledging to kill in Congress is not likely to even be signed here. Peter Mandelson - Hong Kong's Dr. No - spent the night taking shots at it, and taking the EU's isolation here from "near-total" to total.

If nothing else, this week has made me incredibly cynical about the EU. These bastards spin with such brazen disregard for the truth, it's staggering. A lot of their statements are just near-Orwelian reversals of what happened - Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia and the meeting is failing due to developing country intransigence. Right.

If the Euro chingo doesn't get us, the US congressional sin-nariz will. Meanwhile, Portman keeps making concessions. One interpretation is that he is so confident the EU won't sign anything like what they're talking about, he feels emboldened to make "concessions for free" - knowing he won't really have to take them to congress. Hey, why should the US share the bad-guy spotlight when the EU is willing to hog it all to itself?

Beyond all the tactical posturing, the big losers from all of this will be West Africa's cotton producers. A group including Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and Niger - really the poorest of the poor countries on earth - came excruciatingly close to reaching a hard fought for agreement with the US on cotton subsidies. To these countries Cotton is a bit like oil is to Venezuela - 70% of their export earnings, basically their only export commodity. Their producers' inability to compete with subsidized US producers had become a kind of symbol of the iniquities in the trade regime: millions and millions of desperately poor Africans shut out of world markets by the US determination to keep paying subsidies for 50,000 gringos to farm cotton. This week, Brazil, India and the G110 went to bat for the West African cotton producing countries, pressuring the US as a block to make cuts in cotton subsidies faster than cuts in any other sector.

They were just about there...the US had just about conceded the point...they were so, so close. But no cigar, cuz the EU won't sign.