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Trade ministers gather amid protectionist fears

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown  speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
By William L. Watts MarketWatch

DAVOS, Switzerland – Trade ministers gathered on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting vowed on Saturday to work toward completing the long-stalled Doha Round of international trade talks this year in the face of fears a sharp global downturn and rising unemployment will spur domestic political calls for protectionist measures.

“They all said the situation is becoming extremely difficult at home,” World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy told reporters.

Meanwhile, the annual gathering of more than 2,500 corporate CEOs, politicians, economists and others in Davos saw several participants warn that fiscal stimulus packages being crafted by governments around the world could include various protectionist measures.

“Buy America” provisions in the $800 billion-plus fiscal stimulus package working its way through the U.S. Congress were often cited.

“I hope very, very wholeheartedly that the Senate will consider this clause very, very carefully,” Lamy said.

And British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Saturday warned of an “implicit protectionism” in bailout packages that restrict funding for endangered banks to national institutions, while barring participation by foreign financial institutions.

But Lamy said worries about financial protectionism may have been “a bit jump-started.”

It’s “difficult to say” where such restrictions fall under WTO rules, which do offer provisions for dealing with systemic failures, Lamy said.

The Davos meeting included trade ministers from 18 economies, including Brazil, China, India, Japan, the European Union and others. The United States was represented by Peter Allgeier, who is serving as acting U.S. trade representative.

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