GENEVA (AP) – Struggling global trade talks are far from a breakthrough, an American official said Monday, as key trading powers met amid growing concern in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reported tensions within the Bush administration over the slow pace of negotiations.
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab refused to comment after a meeting with WTO chief Pascal Lamy, but her spokesman, Sean Spicer, said the three days of discussions between top U.S., EU, Brazilian and Indian officials in London and Geneva were aimed primarily at clarifying the positions of the four countries –largely seen as the main brokers of any global trade deal.
The ministerial talks were held as countries show signs of increasing impatience with the ''quiet diplomacy'' that has guided the WTO's Doha trade round since an acrimonious collapse last July.
Poorer countries within the 150-member body have complained about a lack of transparency and possible horse-trading among the big four. Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal report on Monday cited emerging uneasiness within the administration of President Bush over how to get the talks moving.
The so-called Doha round has stumbled since its inception five years ago in Qatar's capital, largely because of the wrangling between rich and poor countries over eliminating farm trade barriers. Sniping between the U.S. and the 27-nation EU has also stalled progress.
''We have a way to go,'' Spicer told reporters at WTO headquarters in Geneva, where Schwab finished her trip after meeting with Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath.
Spicer sought to alleviate fears that the U.S. and other major powers would attempt to ''bulldoze'' smaller nations into a new trade pact they were negotiating. ''We are not going to come to a breakthrough and say to everyone, 'Here is the deal, take it.'''
The sober assessment of the talks, which have suffered from numerous delays and missed deadlines, appears at odds with optimistic statements from a number of world leaders over recent weeks.
''I think we're close to deal an agreement on the Doha round,'' Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Monday during his ''Coffee with the President'' biweekly radio show.
Silva essentially summarized the current logjam on cutting tariffs and slashing farm subsidies, but stopped short of saying why he was optimistic.
''The United States has heavily subsidized agriculture, and the European Union also heavily protects its agriculture,'' he said. ''So what we're asking is that the United States stop giving the subsidies being granted now, and that the European Union improve access to products from the Third World.''
Silva said emerging economic powers such as Brazil, China and India would then be prepared to remove barriers to manufactured imports and foreign service providers – which together account for over 90 percent of global economic production.
''They speak a lot about free trade but they insist on protecting their products,'' Silva said. ''So what I want is this: If we're going to have free trade, let's have free trade that gives us an opportunity to buy and sell.''
Senior Bush administration officials, however, are becoming frustrated that the WTO talks are moving so slowly and are questioning whether the current strategy of low-key negotiations between small groups of countries _ originally conceived as a way of avoiding another high-profile WTO failure – will yield results, according the Wall Street Journal.
It reported that National Economic Council director Allan Hubbard and national security adviser Stephen Hadley are pressing for a bolder U.S. proposal than Schwab has offered in a new push to kick-start the round, and that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's increasingly prominent role as a free-trade advocate was threatening Schwab's credibility.
''It's ridiculous,'' Spicer said. ''It's just not true. They have a fantastic working relationship. The president and Secretary Paulson will both tell you that Ambassador Schwab is the administration's point person on trade.''
WTO negotiators are trying to forge the blueprint of a new global trade accord before July, when Bush's authority to make trade deals that can be sent to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote expires.
Bush is seeking the renewal of the ''fast track'' power, but faces an uphill battle in Congress, especially if there are no signs of progress on the Doha talks. Without the authority, it will be much harder for any treaty to gain congressional approval in the U.S.
AP Business Writer Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo, Brazil, contributed to this report.