Commonwealth leaders to press Blair on trade deal

LONDON - Leaders of Commonwealth countries will urge Prime Minister 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) industrialised 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.

INDIFFERENCE TO POVERTY

Commonwealth countries want the EU to respond to a US 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 programmes, 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 per cent.

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 per cent 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.

- REUTERS

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