As the WTO talks opened in Hong Kong Tuesday, security was tight and key players, including Germany, had lowered their expectations.
Protesters made a statement on farm policy ahead of WTO meeting
German Economy Minister Michael Glos said he had "scaled back expectations" for the World Trade Organization's 6th ministerial conference, set to start in Hong Kong Tuesday.
"It wouldn't make any sense to set our hopes too high," he said. Yet he added: "It's very important that there is no failure."
Economy Minister Glos: not-so-great expectations
The notion that a trade agreement could be signed at the talks was widely seen as unlikely, amid continued deep differences between developed and developing countries, particularly over agriculture.
Brazil, India cited
Europe was under renewed pressure to lower farm-tariff barriers ahead of the conference; while assistance for poor states, including duty-free access, have become a litmus test for success.
Echoing remarks made by other European officials such as EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, Glos pointed the finger at Brazil and India, saying current negotiations with those countries on custom rights were proving difficult.
He said he would see it as a success if the WTO could merely agree on a timetable for talks next year.
Preparing for protests
Meanwhile, given the history of sometimes violent protest at WTO conferences, a huge security operation went into effect, making ready for the Tuesday meeting. Already on Sunday anti-globalization protesters had taken to the streets in a march that turned out to be peaceful.
In Geneva in 2001, riot police controlled crowds
But police and security officials have barricaded the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong, shopkeepers have boarded up their windows for fear of rioting, and police have stepped up patrols.
The protesters are claiming the global economic system benefits rich nations at the expense of poor ones, and they say the WTO goal of reducing trade barriers threatens the livelihoods of millions of people in developing countries.
Looking for success stories
Oliver Moldenhauer from Attac, a German anti-globalization group, explained why non-government organizations, or NGOs, around the world have flocked to Hong Kong to fight the WTO.
"We need more rights for developing countries, whereas here at the WTO conference the goal is especially to lower the tariffs of the developing countries," he said.
"If we see the success stories of development in the last decades, say Korea, say Japan, say China, these have not been economies that follow the rules of free trade and free capital movement," he said.
Farming is key
The key issue this week in Hong Kong is agricultural trade. Poor nations say richer countries, especially the US and the European Union, should cut subsidies that block cheaper farm imports from developing countries. The US has offered to cut subsidies to farmers by 60 percent and tariffs by up to 90 percent. The EU is willing to reduce agricultural subsidies by 70 percent and import tariffs by up to 60 percent, but developing countries say this is not enough.
Protest group Attac marching against WTO in Frankfurt in 2001
Andrea Maksimovic, campaign manager of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, is one of the few demonstrators who have come to Hong Kong who is not completely opposed to the WTO meeting. She just wants to be sure that whatever deal comes out of it, it is good for the workers.
"We are only opposed to a bad deal," Maksimovic said. "The multilateral trading system is important, because otherwise what you'll have is a number of bilateral and unilateral agreements, where industrialized powerful countries can basically get whatever they want from the developing countries."
Hoping for disaster
"But we think there needs to be some reform of the WTO in terms of its processes. It needs to become more transparent."
Other groups are less generous -- they simply want the WTO meeting to end in disaster and show that the notions of fair trade and free trade are a contradiction in terms.
"We don't expect anything positive from this WTO meeting here in Hong Kong, so we are happy if the whole meeting fails and a new start can be made," Attac's Moldenhauer said.