Richard North, 07/12/2013  

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If anything ought to be dominating the front pages, displacing the torrent of Mandelitis, perhaps it could be this - if anybody could understand the implications.

We are talking here about "the first global trade deal since the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) nearly two decades ago". But if you are the Guardian, this is baaaad as it "has been condemned by anti-poverty groups as a boost for big business at the expense of developing nations".

On the other hand, if you are the Telegraph then you just focus on the "deal to boost global trade", potentially worth $1 trillion over time. It also keeps alive the WTO's broader Doha Round of trade negotiations, we are told.

After 12 years of talks, WTO director general, Roberto Azevêdo, was certainly a happy man as the agreement was signed in Bali by ministers from the body's 159 member countries on Friday, "after last-minute concessions to India over food subsidies".

Azevêdo shed tears during the summit's closing ceremony on Saturday as he thanked the host nation, Indonesia, and his wife. "For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered" on large-scale negotiations, he said. "This time the entire membership came together. We have put the 'world' back in World Trade Organisation," he said. "We're back in business … Bali is just the beginning".

Just for once, though, reference to the original documentation doesn't help very much as it offers a link to the Draft Bali Ministerial Declaration which in turn offers no less than fifteen draft texts for adoption by ministers, with their relevant links.

Digging deeper into the decision on food security, we find that this refers to an agreement which allows India temporarily to maintain subsidy levels for traditional staple food crops, "in pursuance of public stockholding programmes for food security purposes". This, apparently protects its poorest farmers from US firms dumping surplus agricultural produce.

The talks were also threatened at the 11th hour when Cuba objected to removal of a reference to the decades-long US trade embargo that Cuba wants lifted but way was cleared "to ease barriers to trade by reducing import duties, simplifying customs procedures and making those procedures more transparent to end years of corruption at ports and border controls".

At least one person isn't impressed though. This is Simon Evenett, professor of international trade at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. "Beyond papering over a serious dispute on food security, precious little progress was made at Bali", he says, "Dealing with the fracas on food security sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the talks".

But Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), was even less impressed. He warns that this is "an agreement for transnational corporations not the world's poor", arguing that, "The aggressive stance of the US and EU means that we have moved only a little, and shows again that the WTO can never be a forum for creating a just and equal global economic system".

Dearden avers that a succession of planned bilateral deals on a range of goods and services threatened the WTO and represented "the biggest shift of power from people to corporations that we have seen in 10 years" and must be "halted in their tracks".

This is a reference to the EU-US trade talks (TTIP), confirming that they are being used to by-pass the stalled Doha round. The apparent success of the Bali talks may therefore be a response to the challenge presented by TTIP. Evenett might have seen through them but the success is being inflated in order to put WTO back on the map.

Front-page headlines, therefore, might be unwarranted, even if the story has just taken an interesting turn. But it is certainly one to watch.

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