Touted as the possible start to a new round of trade talks, the meeting was supposed to take on issues such as tariffs and other trade barriers in areas ranging from agriculture to electronic commerce.
“At the end of the day,” U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said as the talks began, “all of the world’s major trading partners believe that failure is not an option.”
But after days of protest, some of it requiring police intervention, and arguments between some of the WTO’s 135 member nations, the conference ended with no real agreements reached and the proposed round of talks falling by the wayside.
Although some criticized the WTO for its lack of action, many countries left the conference saying that no deal was better than a flawed one.
“The absence of a result at this stage is preferable to a bad agreement,” French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said in a statement. “Europe was right not to renounce that position, nor to accept the launch of a truncated agreement that would have opened in bad conditions.”
Efforts to agree to the talks bogged down after President Clinton endorsed possible trade sanctions against nations if they fail to meet basic working and environmental standards.
Clinton’s statement, made to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, complicated the WTO meeting as delegates worked toward a Friday night deadline to come up with a plan for the new round of trade talks.
Some in the European Union said Clinton’s position was part of the U.S. politicking that added to the talks’ tension.
“We made an error of timing by trying to launch a world trade round at the start of an American election campaign,” EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy told a news conference. “Nobody likes to make concessions during an election campaign.”
Discussions over the labor issue had become so heated that many developing countries have refused to sign the trade liberalization deal WTO delegates had been working toward on Friday.
India said it would reject plans by the U.S. and the European Union for study groups on minimum labor standards.
“We are totally opposed to it and have no intention of yielding,” Shipra Biswas, joint secretary of information at India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry told Reuters.
Delegates from other developing countries had said they felt shut out of the talks by their more wealthy counterparts.
“They have been treating us like animals, keeping us out in the cold and telling us nothing,” Egyptian trade negotiator Munir Zahran told Reuters.
Latin American and Caribbean countries declared they would not ratify any agreements reached at the summit until they had more of a voice in the proceedings.
“As long as due respect to the procedures and conditions of transparency…do not exist, we will not join the consensus to meet the objectives of this ministerial conference,” the statement said.
Negotiators said they would continue talks after the Seattle breakdown, but are skeptical as to what can be achieved, since the talks have no set agenda and no deadline for completion.