GENEVA Political leaders want negotiators to deliver them a global trade deal next year and the clock has started ticking on intensified talks, the head of the World Trade Organization said on Tuesday.
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said the G20 and APEC summits this month had signaled they wanted the nine-year-old Doha round concluded and 2011 was a window of opportunity.
"We have the political signal, we have the technical expertise and we have the work program," Lamy told a WTO meeting called to review the state of the Doha talks.
"The final countdown starts now."
The talks, launched nine years ago this month to open up world trade and help developing countries prosper through increased commerce, have been stalled for two years.
But a series of brainstorming contacts among WTO ambassadors in recent months has suggested ways of breaking the deadlock.
At a meeting of the WTO's Trade Negotiations Committee, Lamy laid out a program of intensified work for the coming months, starting in December, endorsed by almost all 153 members.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
It is unclear whether the leaders of the rich and emerging economies at the G20 summit in Seoul and leaders of Asia-Pacific states at the APEC summit in Yokohama were calling for a deal to be signed and sealed by the end of 2011 or just definitive progress toward an agreement.
But most WTO members speaking at Tuesday's meeting assumed the call was for a done deal, with the possibility of ministers signing it at the WTO's next conference at the end of 2011. That would imply negotiators producing revised negotiating texts -- the basis for any deal -- by the Easter holiday in the core areas of agriculture, industrial goods and services as well as other areas such as rules for unfairly priced imports and fisheries subsidies where negotiations have lagged.
And, as many speakers emphasized, it would mean the outlines of an agreement being reached by June or July, to leave the rest of the year for the details to be filled in.
The history of the Doha round is a long litany of missed deadlines, and negotiators are aware that the latest plan could simply erode their credibility still further, with another failure possibly marking the end of the ambitious talks.
Bolivia told the meeting that artificial deadlines would make negotiations hard for developing countries and questioned the need for new texts by April.
And despite the universally echoed willingness to push for a deal, the trade diplomats in Geneva know there are still large gaps to bridge which will require flexibility from governments.
Some of those differences came to the fore again at Tuesday's meeting, with Brazil, speaking on behalf of other developing country food producers, warning that any improvements to the deal so far on the table sought by rich countries would require them to make further concessions on agriculture.
And U.S. ambassador Michael Punke repeated Washington's view that big emerging economies like China, India and Brazil must do more to open up their markets, a long-standing cause of deadlock.
But Punke also said U.S. trading partners were showing willingness to address U.S. concerns. "We've seen some useful signs on that front," he told reporters after the meeting.
Economists differ on the size of the stimulus to the world economy from a new trade deal, but most agree it would provide a bulwark against protectionism and boost business confidence. Developing countries strongly favor a deal although many non-governmental organizations dispute its value to them.
Privately, many diplomats and officials still doubt whether the willingness to seal a deal is there, but say they will try.
A key point will come when negotiators start making trade-offs across the board; a concession on farm subsidies for greater access for electrical goods, for instance.
"We have to make our efforts to put the leaders' instructions into practice," said Chinese ambassador Sun Zhenyu.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)