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Meeting of WTO powers fails to make breakthrough in trade talks

Meeting of WTO powers fails to make breakthrough in trade talks

A meeting of the world's top commercial powers yielded only a vague pledge of commitment to global trade liberalization efforts on Saturday _ a disappointment after business and political leaders called for progress in the World Trade Organization talks.
Representatives of the United States, the European Union, India, Brazil and almost two dozen other countries "expressed a strong wish for a quick resumption of full-scale activity," said a statement from the Swiss Economics Ministry, which organized the gathering on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum.
The meeting in the Swiss Alps was the first joint attempt by trade and foreign ministers at reviving the talks since efforts to clear barriers to trade in farm goods and manufactured products acrimoniously collapsed last summer.
The U.S. and the EU publicly blamed each other for the failure and both clashed with leading developing countries India and Brazil over slashing subsidies and cutting tariffs, particularly in the agricultural sector.
"There will need to be a new U.S. offer on farm subsidies. There will need to be a new EU offer on tariffs. There will need to be a new offer from India and Brazil on manufactured goods," said Pascal Lamy, the WTO director-general.
Lamy said the negotiations have clearly changed in character since the pessimism of last July, but he could not predict when negotiators might be ready to take up again the hard numbers of a new trade deal.
"We are not going to hammer out a deal, but we do have a responsibility to move things forward," EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told fellow negotiators during the meeting. "To get there, each key player will need to show new commitment and real flexibility."
Mandelson reiterated that the EU was willing to improve its offer on cutting farm tariffs, but only if reciprocal moves were made by others in return.
The return to talks came amid increased support from global business leaders and top politicians. In addition to the Forum's themes of climate change and Middle East peace efforts, the WTO negotiations were the subject of repeated discussions in Davos.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sounded confident about progress on Friday, a day after 65 of the most powerful business executives warned that failure to reach a new trade deal would undermine the world's economic growth and risk the dangers of protectionism.
But while pledges of commitment have never lacked, getting countries to open up their markets to foreign competition has been much more difficult since the round's inception in Qatar's capital five years ago.
Summits in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003 and in Hong Kong just over a year ago both failed to outline concrete steps for liberalizing the global economy and were more noteworthy for the public bickering among ministers and the angry street protests they sparked.
The frustration ultimately reached boiling point in July when the Lamy called for a halt to talks after the organization's most powerful members refused to budge from entrenched positions on farm support and manufacturing tariffs.
"Wishing a successful outcome for the Doha round we've learned doesn't make it so. Pointing fingers doesn't make it so. Having one country go first doesn't result in a successful outcome. And focusing on the 'top-line numbers' as we did last July doesn't result in a successful outcome," U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told reporters.
Schwab, who has insisted that Washington will only accept significant farm subsidy cuts as part of a deal that creates lucrative new trade flows, instead prescribed a slower sector-by-sector approach.
Although talks were never formally or legally suspended, Lamy has said that he will only "officially restart" the round when countries signal their readiness to make concessions.
The positive note he has sounded in recent weeks had raised speculation that he might make the announcement Saturday, but even that would have been little more than symbolic and meant primarily to kickstart a final push for a deal.
Celso Amorim, the foreign minister of Brazil, which stands to be one the biggest beneficiaries of a new deal, said his country was ready to talk Saturday.
"I was prepared to go into any room with Pascal Lamy and a group of negotiators, having the key thrown away and only going out when the negotiation was ready," he said.
While others were more hesitant, Amorim predicted a breakthrough in the talks in late March or early April.
Negotiators are trying to forge the blueprint of an accord before July, when U.S. President George W. Bush's authority to make trade deals that can be sent to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote expires.
Without the so-called "fast track" authority, it would be much harder for any treaty to gain congressional approval in the U.S., the world's largest trading nation.
"The United States will need and can get fast-track if there's a viable package on the table," Schwab said.


Updated : 2020-12-05 11:12 GMT+08:00