Doubt Expressed About WTO Year-End 2006 Deadline, Raising Specter of TPA Renewal

Original Publication Date: 
26 December, 2005

Trade ministers at the World Trade Organization's Dec. 13-18 ministerial meeting in Hong Kong agreed to set a new deadline for completing the Doha Round of trade talks by the end of 2006, but many observers are skeptical that the negotiations, which are stalled in several areas, can be completed by then.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as fast track, is set to expire by June 30, 2007. U.S. trade officials have said that the WTO talks need to conclude by the end of 2006 in order to have legislation implementing a Doha Round agreement ready for Congress by the June 30 deadline.

If negotiations are not complete by then, the administration could seek an extension or renewal of fast track. But several Capitol Hill aides said that a renewal of TPA in late 2006 or early 2007 would be very difficult and highly unlikely to occur.

Regarding the new Doha Round target of year-end 2006, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, told reporters Dec. 20, "I don't think anyone thinks they can make that deadline."

Wallach, a critic of the WTO who attended the Hong Kong ministerial, said there were some indications during the talks that "there's a recognition of the fact that it's not a question of whether there's going to have to be negotiations beyond that date, but how and in what context."

The Doha Round was launched in November 2001 with an original goal of completing the talks by Jan. 1, 2005.

'Possible But Improbable.'

Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, a pro-liberalization think tank, told BNA that meeting the deadline is "still possible, but it's increasingly improbable," particularly given the lack of progress in Hong Kong.

John Goyer, vice president of international trade negotiations and investment at the Coalition of Service Industries, said Dec. 21, "At best, it's going to be a real challenge to meet that deadline."

Goyer, speaking at a lunchtime discussion sponsored by Women in International Trade, said there has been little actual service sector liberalization in many of the services offers that have been made during the Doha talks so far.

As a result, "a lot of negotiating work is really yet to be done," he said, and effective negotiations on services can take "many, many months."

In addition, progress on services trade could be delayed by efforts in the next few months to resolve major outstanding disagreements in agriculture and goods trade, Goyer said. Trade ministers resolved in Hong Kong to agree on the modalities for cutting tariffs and subsidies in agriculture and manufactured goods by April 30, 2006.

Serious negotiations on services could therefore be postponed until May, Goyer said, which "means that we may even have less negotiating time than the one year."

TPA Extension Panned

Several Capitol Hill aides that work on trade issues also expressed skepticism that the round could be completed by the end of 2006.

"There are just too many divergent interests," one Senate staffer, who asked not to be identified, told BNA.

But few of these aides felt it would be possible to extend TPA even if the Doha negotiations were behind schedule.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said Dec. 9 that it was "highly unrealistic" to expect that TPA could be extended if the year-end 2006 deadline is missed.

While some Hill aides acknowledged that such rhetoric is at least partly intended to exert leverage on recalcitrant WTO members, one aide said, "I really believe it."

Democrats in both the House and the Senate are generally unhappy with how TPA has been used, two congressional staffers said. Bush's current fast-track authority was approved by one vote in 2002 and an extension of similar legislation would be more difficult now, a House Democratic aide said.

Some observers have speculated that a TPA extension just for the purpose of approving an eventual Doha Round agreement could be considered by Congress, but a Senate GOP aide said, "We're not even discussing that."

The issue is unlikely to come to a head until early 2007, Schott and other sources said. Extending TPA in 2006, an election year, would be difficult, congressional aides said, and Democrats will likely seek to push any consideration of an extension into 2007, when a new Congress with potentially more Democratic members will be seated, Schott said.