Global commerce talks at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva appeared on the brink of collapse today as top powers stumbled in attempts to agree on steps towards liberalising trade in farm and manufactured goods.
Failure at the meeting called by WTO chief Pascal Lamy with ministers from Australia, Brazil, the 25-nation European Union, India, Japan and the United States could lead to the indefinite suspension of the Doha round of trade liberalisation talks, which are already two years behind schedule and have been at an impasse for months.
Lamy was expected later today to discuss with the organisation’s 149 members whether it was worth continuing with the negotiations, officials said.
Leaders of the Group of Eight major industrialised countries reaffirmed their commitment to the talks at their summit in Russia last week, but it appeared that failed to translate into real negotiating action as officials said yesterday’s meeting failed to generate the new movement hoped for after the pledges of support from the world’s most powerful presidents and prime ministers.
“Unfortunately things became clear yesterday that ‘Doha light’ seems still to be the preferred option of some of the participants,” US Trade Representative Susan Schwab said today, referring to the possibility of a watered-down agreement to solve the stand-off.
Schwab told reporters at the World Trade Organisation that the US was committed to “a robust, ambitioned and balanced round” and would not give up on the talks, even as other officials suggested the failure of leading commercial powers to make compromises risked wrecking the talks.
US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the proposed steps forward from other countries “appeared to be getting lighter and lighter in the last few weeks”.
But some officials said the United States should have improved its offer on cutting government handouts to American farmers. The US, however, held firm to its stance that it would budge only after the EU lowered its tariffs on farm imports and leading developing countries like Brazil and India cut barriers to trade in manufactured goods.
The complex trade talks aim to boost the global economy and lift millions out of poverty worldwide by lowering trade barriers across all sectors, with particular emphasis on clearing obstacles to increased exports from developing countries.
But the Doha round has stalled because of differences between rich and poor countries, as well as between the EU and the US The Doha negotiations are named for the Qatari capital where they were launched in 2001.
In a recent series of Geneva meetings, most countries have been sticking rigidly to the same positions they have maintained for months.
The entire process is rapidly running out of time because US President George Bush’s authority to “fast track” the trade deal – enabling US envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yea-or-nay vote without amendments – runs out in mid-2007.