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It’s
up to Lamy

Prospects for the Doha round look grim. Over five years in, and
the World Trade Organisation’s 149 members still seem as far apart as they were
during the 2003 Cancún debacle. Only the massaging down of expectations by WTO
boss Pascal Lamy ahead of the
Hong Kong summit
last December rescued it from disaster. Now another deadline looms: 30th April,
by when an outline deal must be reached if a final agreement is to be struck by
the end of the year, ahead of the expiry of Bush’s fast-track authority in
2007.
 

But while progress has been painfully slow
so far, all hope is not lost. Negotiators have a much clearer idea of each
other’s true bottom lines. So if the political will is there on all sides, a
framework deal could rapidly fall into place. The grand bargain involves the EU
and the US opening their agriculture markets—the EU cutting its farm tariffs,
the US its subsidies—in return for greater access to industrial and services
markets in developing countries, notably India and Brazil. The poorest
countries also need to be bought off with duty-free access to EU and US
markets; in particular, the
US
has to hack down its cotton subsidies, while the EU has to compensate its
ex-colonies for eroding the margin of their preferential access to EU markets. 

 The key to success does not lie solely in Brussels and Washington. New Delhi and Brasilia must also step up to the mark. They showed in Cancún
that they were a force to be reckoned with; now they need to use their power
responsibly by making the concessions that will unlock further moves from the
EU and the US. India and Brazil have a new-found confidence; if they can
overcome their lingering doubts about liberalisation, they have much to gain
from a successful Doha round.

Lamy too is vital—not just as an honest
broker, but also as a deal-maker. If the talks remain logjammed, he should
break the deadlock by publishing his own draft agreement. That will take guts,
for sure, but Lamy has plenty of those—and the alternative is failure. 


Gas
connections

That unglamorous gas pipeline known as the
“interconnector”, which runs between Bacton in
Norfolk and Zeebrugge in Belgium,
has suddenly become the centre of political attention.
Britain has little spare gas capacity,
especially since a fire damaged the country’s main gas storage facility, and
imports from continental
Europe should have
flowed down the interconnector in the recent cold snap when British demand
surged. But this did not happen because
Europe’s
monopolistic energy producers had little incentive to compete for British
business since their protected home markets are so profitable. The result was
that prices soared and
Britain paid perhaps £1 billion more for gas than it might have done.

Higher gas prices are not just painful for
consumers. They push up inflation, dampening consumers’ spending power and
delaying a potential cut in interest rates. And they are also prompting power
companies to switch back to dirtier coal—one reason, according to the
government, why it will miss its climate-change target of cutting
carbon-dioxide emissions by a fifth by 2010. A reminder that competition
matters—and that EU governments’ energy protectionism cannot be ignored.


Britain’s productivity puzzle

Despite Gordon Brown’s budget boasts about Britain’s economic
performance under his watch, productivity growth has ground to a halt. It was a
mere 0.6 per cent in 2005, according to new ONS figures. That did not stop
Brown asserting in his budget speech that matters had improved—a statistical
sleight of hand achieved by ignoring events since 2001. “After decades behind,
Britain has caught up with Germany in productivity… and has halved the gap
with
 France,”
the chancellor said. In fact, whereas Britain narrowed the gap with the other
G7 rich economies from 19 per cent in 1992 to 6 per cent in 2002, it has since
risen to 8 per cent in 2004. The gap with the US and Germany, although lower
than in 1992, is 16 per cent, and that with France a whopping 29 per cent. And
whereas productivity growth averaged 2.5 per cent a year in the first four
years of Brown’s stewardship, it has slumped to just 1.6 per cent a year since
then.
 

One reason for the recent fall in productivity
growth is cyclical: the economy has slowed since the dotcom bubble burst in
2001. But another is the huge expansion of the public sector. It is harder to
boost productivity in labour-intensive services like health and education than
in manufacturing—and harder still to measure it: does reducing class sizes cut
productivity (because more teachers are needed to educate a given number of
pupils) or potentially raise it (because skills are increasingly valuable and
children learn much more with more personal attention)? The ONS recently had a
stab at estimating productivity growth in the NHS since 1999—and came up with
six answers ranging from a fall of 1.5 per cent a year to a rise of 1.6 per
cent a year.

The failure to reform sufficiently in the
public services has not helped: the NHS has improved, but not as much as the
extra money warranted. Ironically, this may now be changing. All the noise
about job cuts caused by local NHS deficits is politically awkward, but if the
government does not bail out underperforming NHS trusts, the cuts will boost
productivity since most trusts plan to provide the same service with lower
spending.

 

© Prospect

 

Posted 20 Apr 2006 in Other, Prospect, Published articles, Trade

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