November 29, 2008 / 8:36 PM / 11 years ago

WTO chief says expects ministerial decision next week

DOHA (Reuters) - World Trade Organization (WTO) chief Pascal Lamy said on Saturday he was increasingly inclined to call ministers to Geneva next month to pursue a global trade treaty that could mitigate the world’s economic turmoil.

U.S. President George W. Bush and other leaders have been pushing for a breakthrough this year in the global free trade talks, known as the Doha round, as a way to bolster the troubled world economy.

Lamy said it would be risky to convene a ministerial meeting unless the WTO’s 153 member governments are ready to make the compromises needed to finally clinch agreement in the delicate negotiations.

“Convening a meeting that will fail is a risk. Not convening a meeting, waiting for some time ... is also taking a risk,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a United Nations aid summit.

“I have not yet made a determination but the answer should be reasonably clear by the end of next week,” Lamy added.

The WTO’s Doha round is named after the Qatari capital because trade officials launched the negotiations during a summit there in November 2001.

A Doha-round agreement would cut subsidies and tariffs on thousands of exported goods and cross-border services, prying open food, fuel, transportation and other markets and therefore encouraging global economic activity.

But previous efforts to wrap up the deal — which requires full consensus among all the negotiating parties — have gotten stuck on many countries’ resistance to exposing their farmers and key industrial sectors to more competition.

A July ministerial meeting collapsed over the workings of a safeguard to shield poor-country farmers during times of crisis.

Lamy said the financial and economic turmoil that has rocked global markets in the past few months had cast the WTO talks in a new light, making it more likely countries would compromise.

“They want this done, not least because of the huge change in the macreconomic environment which has happened since July,” he said, relaying what he called encouraging signs from world leaders in recent bilateral and other talks.

“I am more inclined to call a meeting now ... I am hesitating less now than a week ago,” he said.

European Union Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said on Friday there needed to be “a certain certainty” about the prospects of a deal before a ministerial meeting occurs.

But she said December may be the last chance for some time to nudge the long-sought accord to a conclusion. “If we don’t get a positive deal in December, it would be very difficult to imagine ministers coming back in the first six months of 2009,” she told reporters in Brussels

The Bush administration leaves the White House in January and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has not yet signaled whether he would alter his country’s negotiating stance in the WTO talks, casting a long shadow over the Doha round.

Lamy will meet with ambassadors at the WTO’s headquarters on Sunday to gauge their sentiment and take the pulse of technical talks that have intensified in Geneva over the past two weeks.

Participants in those talks have said advances were made in some areas but countries remained at odds in others, raising questions about whether a deal is actually within reach. Any move to invite ministers to Geneva would need backing from the WTO’s full membership before being official.

Writing by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Michael Roddy

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