WTO Off To A Cautious Start After Summer Break

Delegates from global commerce body say they're ready to get to work, but some officials wary of the claims.

GENEVA (AP) — At first glance, things are looking good again for the World Trade Organization.
Delegates, back from a monthlong summer break, say they are ready to intensify their work toward a new global commerce deal. Countries such as China and the United States want talks to enter the ''final stage.'' And the WTO's chief farm negotiator has declared himself pleased that the organization's 151 member states are prepared to ''roll their sleeves up and get to work.”
''So they say,'' added Crawford Falconer, the New Zealand ambassador who chairs the WTO's agriculture talks.
His caution is warranted. The global commerce body already has missed countless deadlines in its six-year trade liberalization round that aims to add billions of dollars (euros) to the world economy and lift millions of people out of poverty.
The latest push — three weeks of ''intensive'' agriculture talks aimed at bridging differences between rich and poor nations over proposed subsidy and tariff cuts — got off to a mixed start this week.
Falconer said he was pleased that diplomats refrained from repeating their entrenched positions for the umpteenth time — a sentiment shared by many others. But a Tuesday meeting of the entire body was canceled at Brazil's request, and diplomats doubted the first week would contain any serious negotiations. ''Stocktaking'' was a word some delegates used.
The global trade talks known as the Doha round aim have stumbled since their inception in Qatar's capital in 2001, largely because of wrangling between rich and poor countries over eliminating barriers to farm trade and, more recently, manufacturing trade.
Two new proposals, one by Falconer and another by chief industrial trade negotiator Don Stephenson of Canada, were released in July in an attempt to force countries into bargaining. The drafts also aimed to erase a major failure in June by the U.S., EU, Brazil and India to converge on sticking points such as U.S. farm subsidy limits and industrial tariff cuts for leading developing countries.
But the restart of talks this week has been more cautious than delegates forecast in July, when they spent two weeks reacting to the proposals and pledging real engagement in September.
''We would have liked to hit the ground running, but some members said they needed more time to prepare,'' said John Clarke, an official representing the 27-nation European Union. The pace of this week's talks appears to have lagged far behind demands for urgency.
A draft statement by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum — a group of 21 members including the United States, Japan and China — says achieving global trade talks has ''never been more urgent'' and calls for the process to reach the final phase by the year’s end.
Flavio Damico, Brazil's chief farm trade negotiator, said it was important to expand trade at a time when global finance markets were uncertain. ''If you are on the verge of an economic crisis, it's very important to send out a positive signal here,'' he said at the WTO's Geneva headquarters.
And EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said Tuesday ''there has to be a very serious engagement by negotiators'' if a breakthrough is to be reached this autumn. ''If we fail to do that, then I am afraid that I can see the round going into the deep freeze, and it will be very difficult indeed to remove it and revive it in future,'' he told the BBC.
But it is unclear if negotiators are approaching their work any differently, having heard the ''now or never'' cry repeatedly in recent years. The round originally was supposed to finish at the end of 2004.
A number of trade officials said they fear next year's U.S. presidential election could harden sentiment against trade liberalization in the world's wealthiest country, where the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives recently passed a new five-year farm bill offering few changes in programs for major crops such as corn, cotton, rice, soybean and wheat.
The expiration in June of the U.S. ''fast track'' authority to send Congress a trade deal for a yes-or-no vote already has made it much harder for Washington to offer greater concessions. It also complicates any effort to ratify a deal involving more than 140 countries because Congress would be able to reopen the debate on any point.
Leading White House candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton recently said she would oppose renewing the fast-track authority while President George W. Bush remains in power.
Still, trade officials said they are optimistic that chief U.S. trade negotiator Susan Schwab will deliver a one-shot ''silver bullet'' offer on cutting American farm subsidies before Bush's term ends in 2009.
Schwab, in an interview Monday with The Associated Press, called on rich and poor countries to seriously consider the new WTO proposals, which the U.S. has embraced as a basis for work while insisting that they fail to create enough market opportunities for American manufacturers and are too easy on major developing countries.
But she refused to say if the U.S. would even consider Falconer's proposed range of US$13 billion (euro9.6 billion) to US$16.4 billion (euro12.1 billion) for annual U.S. farm subsidy limits. Washington spent only US$11 billion on trade-distorting subsidies last year, but the Bush administration wants flexibility in the event that greater assistance to farmers is needed because of a decline in world agricultural prices.
''Given the American electoral cycle we are running out of time and we are therefore looking failure in the face,'' Mandelson said. ''I think that the United States has to pitch its offer within that range for it to be sellable to the other negotiators in this round. I think they can do that economically. I think they can get away with it politically. But if they don't, I think I can only see the stalemate continuing and the talks facing collapse.''
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