FEBRUARY 24, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero And Ma. Elisa Osorio - The government is firm in its commitment to global free trade as it gets fresh assurance from the World Trade Organization (WTO) of the benefits of liberalization to fragile economies, despite the stalled Doha round.

Visiting WTO Director General Pascal Lamy gave the assurance during a brief meeting yesterday with President Arroyo and some Cabinet officials at Malacañang’s Music Room.

Lamy also thanked Mrs. Arroyo for helping the cause of world trade by hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cebu in January. Their meeting lasted for about 40 minutes.

Trade Secretary Peter Favila, who was at the meeting, said at a press briefing that while the Philippines does not speak for the developing countries, collectively known as G-33, the country has been pushing strongly for the resumption of the negotiations and for adequate protection for developing economies.

The WTO official left for Geneva after his meeting with Mrs. Arroyo. He arrived on Thursday in Manila from Indonesia.

Aside from Favila, the other officials at the meeting between Mrs. Arroyo and Lamy were Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap and Ambassador Manuel Teehankee, the country’s permanent representative to the WTO.

"I daresay we are ready to do our part in moving world trade. Let it not be said that the Philippines will be the stumbling block (to the resumption of the WTO talks), because we have done our homework, we have studied our numbers, we have looked at our stakeholders and considering also the amount of assistance that the President has ordered for agriculture, we’ll have a fighting chance,’’ Yap told reporters.

Developing countries are batting for special rules that will allow them to continue to restrict access to their agricultural markets.

He said the Philippines and other developing nations are following up on the promised aid to cushion the effects of the lifting of trade barriers.

The Doha round, which began in 2001, got stalled following disagreements over the rich nations’ granting of subsidies to sectors that would be affected by trade liberalization.

Teehankee, for his part, said Lamy affirmed to Mrs. Arroyo the "development dimension’’ of the Doha round. He said such commitment "ensures that the contribution from developing countries would be less than that of the developed (countries).’’ It was called Doha round because it was held in Doha, Qatar.

He added that Lamy was very grateful for ASEAN’s pushing the resumption of the talks.

Teehankee said the "main deliverables’’ under the Doha round would be the reduction of "trade-distorting domestic support ’’ by rich countries for vital sectors. He said another promise of the Doha round is "to rectify unfair subsidies and imbalances.’’

Earlier yesterday, Sen. Manuel Roxas II, chairman of the Senate committee on economic affairs and on trade and commerce, discussed with Lamy the ongoing efforts to bring down the prices of medicines in the country. Roxas authored Senate Bill 2263, which aimed to pull the costs of vital medicines.

He said he informed Lamy that his bill was in accordance with the Doha round and that it "conforms to existing practices followed by other countries.’’ Get out Cause-oriented groups gave Lamy a hostile welcome at the Renaissance Hotel where he spoke before local businessmen.

One of the demonstrators was able to enter the hotel and shouted at Lamy to "get out’’ before he was whisked out by security men.

"It was a moment of spasm. I’m accustomed to that,’’ Lamy said of his experience.

Police said the demonstrators numbered around 100 people composed of members of fishers and farmers groups and civil society organizations.

Lamy, who got the same reception when he visited Indonesia days ago, said he is aware of the notoriety of WTO.

"WTO is a constant and frequent scapegoat. If you need someone to shout out, WTO is a great thing,’’ Lamy said.

Lamy said he is open to a dialogue with civil society groups. "I wish I could have the same sort of dialogue with the civil society here as I had in Geneva.’’

Wigberto Tañada, lead convenor of the Fair Trade Alliance and one of those tapped to comment on Lamy’s speech, said he is "wary and critical of WTO."

Tañada said the organization failed to convince developed countries to correct the imbalances in existing trade rules.

He also challenged Lamy’s pronouncement that developed countries agreed to eliminate export subsidies. "How and when?’’ he asked.

"How can the WTO adopt a genuine development round and put the interest of developing countries in the heart of negotiations?’’

Tañada said the WTO is advocating a "one size fits all solution’’ to the different needs of different countries.

Meanwhile, cause-oriented groups warned Mrs. Arroyo against allowing unfair trade deals just to please the WTO.

"We caution President Arroyo against issuing orders to Secretary Favila and Secretary Yap that will pursue unfair trade deals only to receive rewards and compliments from the WTO body,’’ the groups said in a joint statement.

"Our government should remain firm in advocating for food security, livelihood security and rural development and hold their fort on the flexibilities accorded to developing countries,’’ the statement read.

The groups are composed of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, the International Gender and Trade Network, the Kababaihan ng Kilusang Mangingisda, the Kilusang Mangingisda, and the PAKISAMA, Pambansang Kaisahan ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas among others.

Palace welcomes resumption of WTO DOHA Round of Talks

World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Pascal Lamy informed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo today that member-countries participating in the Doha Round of Talks have agreed to resume negotiations that could pave the way for the possible signing of a landmark agreement this year.

Manuel Teehankee, permanent representative of the Philippines to the WTO, said Lamy relayed the information to the President during his courtesy call this afternoon in Malacanang.

"They have already started (the negotiations) so he has updated the President. Based on the call of ASEAN and the world leaders in Davos (last January), the WTO and all the members have agreed to fully resume negotiations and try to conclude the DOHA Rounds," Teehankee said.

Also present during the courtesy call were Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Favila and Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap.

According to Favila, Lamy informed the President that his visits to WTO-member countries have been fruitful, and everything is going positively for the resumption of talks.

Yap said that Lamy is very positive that with the developed countries’ willingness to go back to the negotiating table and make some compromises, there is window of opportunity up to June to thresh out the contentious issues.

Now that the negotiations have fully resumed, Teehankee said there is hope that developed countries would drastically reduce all kinds of trade distorting domestic support such as unfair subsidies and large amount of money that farmers from developed countries receive.

"If there is a conclusion of the Round, there will be now an agreement to reduce these and all export subsidies and provide increased market access to developing countries," Teehankee said.

Developed countries participating in the WTO Talks are the so-called G-6 members that include the European Union, the United States, Australia, Brazil, India and Japan.

Teehankee said it has been the official position of the developing countries that they are willing to contribute to the Round of Talks provided that assurances of the developed countries are there.

He said another important discussion between the President and Lamy was the Feed for Trade initiative mandated in the Hong Kong ministerial conference.

"This relates to multilateral funding, review and monitoring progress so that all countries truly benefit from freer trade but this is through assurance of proper infrastructure and trade related financing for important businesses like logistics, infrastructure, small and medium-scale industries financing and the like," Teehankee said.

As one of the cornerstones of the President’s chairmanship of the 12th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Cebu last January, ASEAN leaders pushed for the resumption of the DOHA Round of the stalled WTO Talks to accelerate economic growth and offer a tangible means to reduce poverty globally, and in the ASEAN region.

The Philippines took an active part in the WTO negotiations last year, pushing for the achievement of fair and equitable trade relations between developed and developing countries.

Developing countries are calling for the reduction of developed countries’ trade distorting domestic support particularly the subsidies on agricultural and industrial products.

The Doha Round of the WTO negotiations was suspended in July last year due to disagreements on trade barriers such as farm subsidies and tariffs.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved