by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Seattle, 28 Nov 99 -- Less than 48 hours before the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the WTO opens here, there is an air of confusion over Seattle - confusion not only over the substance of the meeting, but even more about the physical arrangements and facilities for delegates, the media and others.

At a press conference Sunday night, the EU made it clear that for the EC, "investment and competition policy" in the next round was a must.

Privately, in bilateral meetings with key developing countries, the EC has made it clear that unless it's demands for WTO rules on these two new issues are met, it will not agree to consider any developing country problems on implementation.

But developing countries note that the EC's best offer so far has only been a willingness to have implementation issues to be part of the next round.

While the 3rd WTO Ministerial Conference is due to be inaugurated Tuesday afternoon local time, the actual work of the conference, four negotiating groups, and a fifth to address housekeeping and other work, begins only Wednesday morning - leaving a bare 48 hours (72 if rumours of the meeting extending into Saturday prove correct) to negotiate a text of the final declaration, with all the square bracketed text of differences found in the 19 October draft of the Chairman of the WTO General Council.

In Geneva, there had been talk of key ministers and others getting into private conclaves to agree on issues, even a day or two before. And while Ministers, official and non-governmental delegates from member and observer countries and institutions from around the world have been pouring into Seattle, Mrs. Charlene Barshfesky, the US Trade Representative (Minister of the host country) who is to chair the conference was expected in Seattle only Sunday night.

Even from the normal standards of the courtesies expected from any host, this is extraordinary. If this had happened in a developing country, the media would have been full of the incompetence and more, of the hosts. But since it has happened in the US, there is very little being noticed.

And until Mrs Barshefsky arrives, and can hold consultations, though there have been rumours of which minister from which country is being picked to head which working group, nothing can be decided or agreed.

And while the working groups will meet, and ministers or officials can speak, the outcome of each group will be negotiated among a smaller group outside the conference premises themselves, even as a fifth working group will be discussing the charade of how to increase transparency.

Perhaps, all this is part of a script written in advance by the US and the WTO head. But it looks increasingly like a scriptless drama where the principal characters don't know what role they are playing.

Weeks in advance, all member countries, the media and the non-governmental groups, officially recognized and allowed to be participants, had been asked to fill up forms, with a picture, to ensure that badges to enter the conference would be ready before and delegates can pick them up without too much time registering.

And citing 'security' reasons, the entire process of accreditation had been handed over to be handled by the FBI, and applications for the media were closed.

But apparently hundreds of forms, duly filled in and verified, got "lost" and several of the arriving delegates -- governments, media and NGOs had to queue up to fill forms and have pictures taken for badges to be made.

According to some of the delegates, who said their information came from the WTO officials already here, it seemed that even normal conference facilities and arrangements to enable interactive session and interventions by delegates from their seat may not be easy at Seattle.

There are some who thought at Geneva, that the US had engineered a total failure of the preparatory process so as to enable it to run the Seattle meeting as suits the US best.

The US hopes that by it's threats that if Seattle ends in failure, it will provoke more protectionist moves in Congress and hence, member-countries must yield to the US more.

At the moment the US ambition is focused on getting the meeting out of the way, through launching of negotiations in agriculture and services, continue the existing moratorium on tariffs on e-commerce and get some language into the final declaration to satisfy its labour lobby.

This is too high a price, since anything the US executive promises is not even deliverable. What the developing countries will do is not clear. Too many capitals are trying to adopt a posture of being 'friendly' to the US.

Perhaps a good starting point could be for the diplomats to say, they can't even extend the moratorium on no tariffs on e-commerce. (SUNS4562)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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