DOHA, Qatar – Trade ministers from more than 140 countries sealed agreement on Wednesday to launch a new series of talks to liberalize global commerce, aiming to lift millions from poverty and boost the world's tottering economy.
After six days of haggling at a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in the Gulf state of Qatar, ministers agreed to begin ``broad and balanced'' negotiations next year on cutting farm subsidies and industrial tariffs and tackling a host of other barriers to trade.
The hard-fought success will breathe new life into the WTO, battered by a disastrous failure to reach a similar agreement in Seattle two years ago.
It will also provide a psychological boost to the global economy at a time when many countries are teetering on the brink of recession in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States on September 11.
``Today the members of the World Trade Organization have sent a powerful signal to the world. We have removed the stain of Seattle,'' U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said.
``By agreeing to launch new global trade negotiations, we are helping to deliver growth, development and prosperity throughout the world. We are also providing a sign of hope -- the hope of economic opportunity and the hope of political purpose by almost 150 nations,'' Zoellick, who led the U.S. delegation, said.
Previous trade rounds, with broad agendas aimed at distributing the benefits of liberalization fairly between members, have been credited with driving the world's economic motor for nearly half a century.
The World Bank has calculated that launching a new cycle of market-opening talks, coupled with related reforms, could add a whopping $2.8 trillion to global income by 2015, a decade after the round is expected to end.
AN EXCERCISE IN COMPROMISE
Agreement eluded the ministers right up to the last moment when India, a vocal defender of its national interest, settled for a statement explicitly acknowledging its reservations about opening talks on competition codes, investment rules and other areas it fears would put poor countries at a disadvantage.
``With this clarification, I am pleased to state that India has joined the consensus on the adoption of the texts before us,'' India's Murasoli Maran told fellow ministers to warm applause.
Maran's refusal to budge for more than 18 hours beyond the WTO's self-imposed midnight deadline sent officials scrambling to draft amendments to a carefully constructed text put together over the six days and two all-night bargaining sessions.
The WTO, which also welcomed China and Taiwan into its midst during the six days, agreed to embark in January on a ''round'' of talks to last no longer than January 2005 to boost trade flows and ensure all countries trade on a level playing field.
To get an agreement, nations had to swallow politically painful compromises -- none more so than France, which eventually dropped its fierce opposition to language pointing to the eventual abolition of agricultural export subsidies dear to Europe's politically potent farmers.
France settled for the addition of a deftly drafted caveat that the outcome of the talks would not be pre-judged.
``It has been difficult because we have been dealing with some of the most sensitive issues,'' said relieved WTO Director-General Mike Moore, who took the helm of the trade watchdog weeks before the fiasco of Seattle.
In the end, a second failure was unthinkable for ministers, who feared it would have hobbled trade growth by spawning bilateral trade deals and mutually hostile regional blocs -- the very thing the WTO was created to avoid.
The questions with which ministers grappled were often arcane but the outcome of a new trade round will affect the price and availability of goods in shops around the world.
Millions of workers could lose their jobs, and millions of others find work, as industries rise and fall because of market-opening moves set in train in Doha.