Portman Optimistic About Doha Talks

Original Publication Date: 
8 September, 2005

Despite recent failures to move the negotiations forward, Trade Representative Portman expressed optimism Thursday about the future of the Doha round of international trade talks, saying his fellow trade ministers -- including E.U. Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson -- have indicated their governments have the political will to advance the talks.

Portman, who briefed reporters in Washington, indicated the goal is to make substantial progress by December, when the next major ministerial meeting is held in Hong Kong.

"I don't think we should expect any final decisions in Hong Kong," Portman said. "But what we do need to expect is that there will be frameworks established for us to make those final decisions."

On the sticky issue of agriculture, "that would mean coming up with the formulas [on] support subsidies, market access and domestic support," he said, acknowledging that "it's a challenge."

A second goal of finishing the agreement by the end of 2006 cannot easily slip, he indicated, since presidential trade negotiating authority is set to expire in the middle of 2007.

Also supporting his optimism on Doha is the arrival at the helm of the WTO of former E.U. trade negotiator Pascal Lamy, whom he described as a "very proactive" individual who would inject new energy into the talks.

Portman also sounded sanguine about the prospects for congressional approval of any Doha deal, even though recent contentious trade legislation like the Central America Free Trade Agreement and trade negotiating authority itself squeaked through the House with relatively miniscule Democratic support.

Portman pledged to work to stimulate Democratic support for a Doha agreement, saying the linchpin of his effort would be an aggressive effort to consult lawmakers across the aisle.

"If it's a good agreement and if we negotiate wisely, it will be quite popular," he said, noting that he had talked with "a couple of House Democrats" this week who opposed CAFTA but expressed interest in the Doha round of talks.

He said some of the bilateral deals that may move in Congress before a Doha round agreement could build support for trade and provide momentum for a Doha deal itself.

Portman expressed optimism as well about the prospects of Congress approving a free trade agreement with Bahrain. "I think we're close," he said.

Seeking to address one of the key sticking points with respect to the agreement, Portman released a letter from the Bahrain minister expressing a commitment to dismantling a boycott of Israel.

Portman, describing USTR's general trade agenda, pointed to other ongoing bilateral and multilateral FTA negotiations, saying talks with Panama and Oman were nearest to completion, possibly by the end of the year.

A document Portman handed to reporters listed talks with Thailand, the Andean countries, and the United Arab Emirates as on track for completion early in 2006, and talks with the South African Customs Union and toward a Free Trade Area of the Americas as "continuing."

However, Regina Vargo, the assistant U.S. trade representative for the Americas, told the Inter-American Dialogue Thursday that the Bush administration does not intend to bring an Andean deal to Congress this year.

Vargo said while the Andean pact could fulfill many of the same goals of the Central America Free Trade Agreement -- such as promoting freedom and democracy and creating economic opportunity and stability -- several issues need to be resolved.

And Juan Manuel Santos, president of the Colombian good government group Fundacion Buen Gobierno, said the lengthy negotiations have diminished political support for the round and the political climate next year might worsen.

"Colombians don't understand why the U.S. has been so hard and tough," he said. With elections approaching, opposition parties might use the issue to gain political leverage, he concluded.

Portman acknowledged that the FTAA talks had not moved quickly, but said a "Summit of the Americas" scheduled for November would be an opportunity to gauge interest in the hemisphere in moving forward.

In addition, he said discussions are under way with South Korea, Egypt, Malaysia and Switzerland about whether starting FTA negotiations "would make sense."

He said he hoped decisions on whether to proceed with these talks would be made by the end of the year.

Portman also said he believed the United States was now "in a position" to sign a WTO accession agreement with Saudi Arabia.

He was also optimistic about striking a comprehensive deal with China on textiles but added, "The United States is absolutely willing to walk away from a bad deal." By Keith Koffler, With Jerry Hagstrom contributing