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WTO Talks Collapse

The meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico, fell apart Sunday, after several developing-country ministers rejected a draft statement they said dealt inadequately with the issue of agricultural subsidies. The collapse puts the future of the effort to reach a worldwide trade agreement in question.

Many representatives of anti-trade, non-governmental organizations danced and chanted in celebration over the breakdown in talks. What hundreds of protesters had failed to do over the past five days of the meeting here in Cancun was done, in the end, by participants, themselves.

The collapse came after the so-called "Group of 21" - a group that now includes around 25 nations - rejected the draft proposal that would have set the framework for talks going forward to create a comprehensive world trade agreement by the end of 2004.

Industrialized nations led by the European Union insisted on the inclusion of such issues as investment rules to protect companies who put money into projects and business arrangements in developing nations. But the developing nations said the document should focus mainly on reducing agricultural subsidies in rich nations, so that poor country farmers can prosper.

Visibly disappointed, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the talks had broken down because some countries preferred to engage in rhetoric rather than negotiate in a serious manner. Asked if he was putting the blame on developing nations, he said "We are all to blame."

Mr. Zoellick says the United States remains committed to promoting free trade, both unilaterally and within the WTO. He says free trade has great promise for both rich and poor nations.

"Developing and developed have to grow together. We will benefit from their growth and their reduction of poverty. That is why we are committed to it," says Mr. Zoellick. "That is why we are spending $752 million a year in trade capacity building. We want to help these countries, both because it is the right thing to do and it will increase trade around the world."

Representatives of several non-governmental groups blame the United States and European Union for the collapse in talks, accusing them of trying to strong-arm poorer nations into including items that were not on the original agenda.

The breakdown in Cancun is a clear setback for the round of talks that began in 2001 in Doha, Qatar. Asked if he thought the Doha Round is now dead, European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said it is not dead, but it is in intensive care. He says it is unlikely that ambassadors meeting in Geneva, in the months ahead, will be able to resolve issues that trade ministers were unable to resolve here in Cancun.

But WTO Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi took a more optimistic approach, saying the world trade talks must be put on track, to prevent a downturn in the world economy. He says member nations will work to resolve differences and get talks back on track, by the end of the year.