GENEVA The World Trade Organization is close to the first worldwide trade reform since it was formed 18 years ago, diplomats and trade officials said on Wednesday, as marathon negotiations defused some of the most complex disputes.
WTO chief Roberto Azevedo has told WTO envoys in Geneva he wants to seal the deal within days so that ministers can formally sign off on the package of trade reforms at their biennial meeting in Bali in the first week of December.
A major element, concerning "trade facilitation", remains to be settled, but if the momentum continues and the talks succeed, the agreement would give a boost to global commerce and revive confidence in the WTO as the custodian of global trade rules.
Its credibility has ebbed away over the past decade with the slow death of the Doha round of talks, which gave way to the more modest package of reforms now under discussion.
Azevedo effectively called a halt on Wednesday to months of haggling over agriculture, one of the deal's three main elements, telling WTO ambassadors the text they had drafted was the best they could hope for.
The talks have been dogged by mistrust, brinkmanship and haggling over grammar and semantics, as well as a handful of negotiating demands deliberately raised at a late stage, according to people who have attended the meetings.
"The patient flatlined a few times but we got the heartbeat going again," Azevedo said, according to participants at the meeting on agriculture.
One particularly thorny section of the agriculture text, on tariff rate quotas, ended up with a convoluted formula - a paragraph that will expire in 2019 but with provisions that will continue to apply unless member countries opt out.
"This is not an elegant solution. Rarely have I seen a worse solution," the WTO director general told the negotiators.
Azevedo, who was until September Brazil's ambassador to the WTO, has drummed his former peers through a round-the-clock schedule of talks not seen at the WTO for years.
"Sometimes he's a bit too rough and tough and even rude to the ambassadors, telling them when to shut up. But it's appreciated that he takes things into his own hands," said one Geneva-based trade official.
Negotiators have marched to his beat. When Azevedo said part of the text needed some magic, Japan's ambassador told the meeting: "I'm ready to join the magical mystery tour."
People involved in the talks say demands by India, China and Argentina almost brought a collapse on Friday, but sessions since then have resolved many of the biggest differences on agriculture and duty-free treatment for the poorest countries.
"We are very close to convergence, not yet there," said one WTO ambassador.
However, trade facilitation, by far the biggest element of the package has yet to be agreed. The aim is to streamline and standardize customs procedures to get goods, packages and containers across borders with the minimum of bureaucracy.
Studies by the OECD and World Bank have put the value of trade facilitation in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year, since it is expected to speed up trade globally.
A senior WTO official said this week it was hoped the whole text could be completed when the WTO's General Council meets on Thursday. But with trade facilitation unfinished, Azevedo cancelled that meeting on Wednesday to push on with the talks.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Alistair Lyon)