Trade powers agree end-2007 deadline for WTO deal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Trade powers on Thursday injected new urgency into sluggish negotiations for a new global free trade treaty which they said they would aim to hammer out by the end of 2007.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab speaks during the session "The Challenges Confronting World Trade Liberalization" at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 25, 2007. Schwab said on Thursday momentum was building in troubled global free trade talks with major powers exchanging ideas on where concessions might be made. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

Ministers from Brazil, the European Union, India, the United States, Australia and Japan, the so-called Group of Six (G6), promised to speed the search for understandings in the crucial areas of farm and industrial goods and services.

“We believe that by intensifying our work, we can reach convergence and thus contribute to concluding the round by the end of 2007,” they said in a statement.

They will meet again in mid-May, although they set no date nor place. However, trade ministers have traditionally attended the annual gathering of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris set for May 14-15.

“The success of this meeting demonstrates that there is a shared sense of responsibility and a shared sense of urgency,” said U.S Trade Representative Susan Schwab.

“If we can translate the shared sense of urgency into action, it’s a realizable goal,” she said of the end-year goal.

Earlier, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the talks made progress on what the next steps should be, but there was no discussion of the key numbers in areas such as farm subsidies and industrial tariffs that will be needed for a deal.

Since its launch in 2001, the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Doha round has missed deadline after deadline as negotiators struggle to find common ground, mostly on farming, but also on market access for industrial goods and services.

Patience is wearing thin among other countries in the 150-member WTO as they wait for convergence among the countries which have taken the lead in seeking a deal aimed at boosting economic growth and offering millions an escape from poverty.

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Setting an end-year deadline means a breakthrough is needed within weeks and full blueprint by around July because months of detailed work separate a draft pact from a full treaty.

“If we don’t have a breakthrough by June 30, we can forget the deal,” said one Indian government official.

The WTO negotiations all but collapsed last year over the continuing deep differences, particularly in agriculture.

Key sticking points have been how far the United States is prepared to go in cutting farming subsidies and how far developing nations like India and Brazil will allow access to their markets in agriculture and industrial products.

“The key to the quiet conversations is the ability to talk about ‘what ifs’? It’s a ‘what if’ conversation,” said Schwab.

For Washington, any breakthrough had to include more market access on agriculture, industry and services.

“Because if you don’t have a breakthrough on the market access part of the trade negotiations, none of the rest of it can come together,” she said.

But it was not clear how much, if any, progress had been made on the divisive issues, with Indian officials grumbling that the Americans were asking too much and offering too little.

“She (Schwab) wants to take a shopping basket of goods to the Congress so that she can convince them,” said one senior Indian official.

Special U.S. presidential powers to negotiate on trade, so-called “fast-track” authority, lapse on June 30 and some negotiators argue a breakthrough in the WTO talks is needed before then to encourage Congress to renew them.

Additional reporting by Kamil Zaheer