GENEVA Ambassadors at the World Trade Organization, heeding a call from leaders at the G20 and APEC summits, have agreed to push for an outline deal in the long-stalled Doha trade round by next summer.
They face the challenge of translating their upbeat rhetoric into negotiating reality if the new target is not simply to join a long list of missed deadlines in the Doha talks.
Leaders of the G20 rich and emerging economies in Seoul this month called for a conclusion of the Doha round to bolster economic recovery and resist protectionism, saying 2011 offered a narrow window of opportunity for a deal. Leaders of the Asia-Pacific group APEC issued a similar call a few days later.
That followed several months in which ambassadors at the WTO got together in small groups to brainstorm on the issues holding up a deal in Doha, launched in November 2001 to open up global commerce and help poor countries prosper through trade.
"The intention is to hit the ground running in January," said an ambassador from a major rich economy, referring to an agreement this week by envoys from 23 key developed and developing powers to push for an outline deal by mid-2011.
"People are talking of this by early summer," said the ambassador, who asked not to be named.
Whether that meant June or July, and a deal signed off by ambassadors or ministers, is not yet settled.
"There is a marked change in atmosphere," said Hamid Mamdouh, the WTO official in charge of services such as banking and telecoms.
GIVE AND TAKE
An outline agreement, known in trade jargon as "modalities," by summer would leave the rest of the year for the details to be filled in, so that an overall deal could be signed at the WTO's next ministerial conference in December 2011.
Reaching agreement among 153 countries on fairer and more up-to-date rules on trading everything from fish and cotton to cars and banking services was never going to be easy.
An overall deal is likely to see rich countries opening up their protected farm sectors and cutting trade-distorting agricultural subsidies, in return for emerging economies opening up their markets for industrial goods.
The United States -- where trade is increasingly seen as a way of exporting jobs, not importing prosperity -- has said emerging states like China, India and Brazil are not offering enough to American businesses to sell a deal in Congress.
The big emerging powers, on the other hand, say they have already offered enough in a negotiation which after all is supposed to help developing countries.
Despite the current positive talk, trade diplomats concede there has been no change in positions so far, but they are now in a better position to start the give and take necessary to reach a deal after working together in small groups.
Ambassadors were holding a series of meetings on Friday to finish briefing those among them who chair the different areas of the negotiations on the outcome of the small-group meetings.
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy will bring envoys from major powers, the negotiating chairs and countries representing various developing-country groupings together on Monday to discuss how to proceed and then present a work plan to all 153 members at a special meeting on Tuesday.
"We are going all out and sparing no effort to reach that target," said a senior envoy from a big emerging economy.
The deal is far from being in the bag. Indeed, in a speech in New Delhi last week, Lamy raised the possibility of the negotiations collapsing, hurting the WTO and the global system of trade rules it manages -- the first time he has publicly countenanced failure, according to seasoned trade observers.
Negotiators know that if they miss 2011, agreement would be almost impossible in 2012 as the United States heads for a presidential election, so a readiness to deal now is vital.
"If we don't, then by default it fails," said the rich economy ambassador.
(Editing by Jan Harvey)