Signs grow that WTO talks may soon revive

Original Publication Date: 
9 January, 2007

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The trade chiefs of the European Union and Japan promised on Wednesday to step up efforts to reach a global trade deal in a fresh sign that stalled five-year-old talks could soon be revived.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and Japanese Trade Minister Akira Amari "expressed their joint commitment to an early and ambitious final agreement in the Doha world trade talks", the EU Commission said in a statement.

Amari's visit to Brussels was the latest in a flurry of meetings between top negotiators to try to resuscitate the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) Doha round of talks on lowering barriers to commerce after they all but collapsed last July.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who met Mandelson in Washington this week, will travel to Geneva on Friday for talks with WTO chief Pascal Lamy, who called a halt to the talks six months ago because divisions were too deep to bridge.

"The signs we are seeing now are qualitatively different from what we heard last year," Lamy was quoted as saying by the Financial Times on Wednesday. "The political chemistry is beginning to work."

The round, launched in 2001 to ease poverty and boost the global economy, risks years of further delay if a deal cannot be struck in the coming months, trade officials have warned.

Failure could undermine confidence in the global trading system and trigger a surge of commercial disputes, particularly over agriculture which has long proved the most difficult issue in the WTO talks.


Mandelson is due to travel to Paris on Thursday to brief French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and other cabinet members on his meeting with Schwab, an EU official said.

France, traditionally the staunchest defender of farming interests in the EU, has warned Mandelson not to make too many agricultural concessions in order to get a WTO deal.

The EU and other WTO countries want the United States to go further with cuts to farm subsidies. But Washington has said it wants the bloc and some big developing countries to improve on their offers for cutting tariffs on agricultural imports.

Developing countries are also under pressure to make deeper reductions to industrial tariffs.

USTR spokesman Sean Spicer said he did not know yet whether Schwab would be making any additional stops in Europe.

"Lamy has been having a lot of conversations as well and I think she wanted to have an opportunity (to compare notes and) brainstorm, so to speak," he told Reuters.

Schwab's Geneva visit follows recent discussions with top trade officials from Brazil, Australia and India, as well as with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the presidency of the EU and the Group of Eight leading economies.

Both Mandelson and Schwab said they had made some progress during this week's meeting, although they did not say where.

Mandelson spoke optimistically of achieving a breakthrough, which he said was needed by the end of March in order to keep the talks alive. But Schwab insisted the quality of a deal was more important than the timing.

Many key players in the talks are expected to attend the World Economic Forum later this month in Davos, Switzerland, where any new ideas could be tested.

The White House's authority to negotiate trade deals expires at the end of June and Congress, which is now controlled by the Democratic Party, may not renew it.