May 20, 2009 / 6:50 PM / 10 years ago

WTO trade talks machine revs up after U.S. visit

GENEVA (Reuters) - A visit by U.S. trade chief Ron Kirk this month to the World Trade Organization has transformed the political atmosphere of long-running global commerce talks, kick-starting the negotiations, trade sources said on Wednesday.

“It’s like the engines are being started up again after being in cold storage for several months,” one trade official said.

Diplomats cannot point to any sudden major advances in the WTO’s Doha negotiations, launched in the Qatari capital in late 2001 to help poor countries prosper through trade.

But technical work on the details of trading goods from bicycles to bananas, which could lay the foundations for a future agreement, is moving along quietly.

And the feeling at a meeting of up to 30 key ambassadors with WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy to assess the state of the Doha round was to agree with Kirk that new approaches are needed to make progress on the talks, launched over seven years ago.

“Everybody in the room took the perspective: we’ve got to get this done,” said the official after the meeting.

Negotiators do not believe the new dynamics mean a Doha deal is imminent, and argue it would still be premature to call ministers to Geneva in July to clinch an agreement.

A “mini-ministerial” last July collapsed without an agreement, the third summer in a row that a high-profile trade meeting had failed to produce results. Lamy decided at the last minute against calling another meeting last December.

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

Lamy will draw on the views of the key ambassadors in his assessment of the state of play on Doha to the WTO’s 153 members at a general council meeting next Wednesday.

That council is likely to call a ministerial conference for the end of November or early December, probably in Geneva.

The conference will deal with questions ranging from the long-term strategy of the WTO to its budget, but not Doha, at least formally. The conference is supposed to be held every two years but has not taken place since 2005 because of fears the meeting would be hijacked by difficult negotiations over Doha.

However, a number of other international meetings in the coming months from Bali and Paris next month to Singapore in November, will give trade ministers an opportunity to take the temperature of the Doha negotiations and move them forward.

U.S. trade chief Kirk’s visit too was focused more on the style of the negotiations than detailed issues.

Kirk made sure he met representatives of more than half the WTO membership, and the former Dallas mayor drew on all his political skills to underline the desire of President Barack Obama’s White House to reach out to its partners.

In fact, he was rebuffed on matters of substance.

Kirk, showing continuity with the previous administration of George W. Bush, said the United States wanted to see more market opening in big emerging countries like Brazil, India, China and South Africa. He repeated the call in a major speech on Monday.

But Brazil’s WTO ambassador, Roberto Azevedo, told Wednesday’s meeting that no one who argued there were major imbalances in the package currently being negotiated would get very far.

Another idea of Kirk’s, designed to offer a new way forward in the talks, also met a cool reception, but is still being pursued by the United States.

Kirk took up a Canadian proposal to move beyond the current focus of talks which aim to reach an outline deal on the formulas for cutting tariffs and subsidies, known in WTO jargon as modalities, and go straight into detailed bilateral negotiations on cutting individual tariffs, known as scheduling.

U.S. ambassador Peter Allgeier told Wednesday’s meeting this was not about skipping modalities or dropping multilateral talks but supplementing them in the interests of transparency.

Negotiators would have a clear idea of what they would get in sectors that interest them, giving them more confidence to negotiate the overall deal.

This approach met with more understanding.

“We have to have conversations with each other, and for political reasons we haven’t been able to do that,” said the trade official. “People seem much more ready to start talking.”

It could work like this. A U.S. negotiator sits down with her Indian counterpart to get a sense of how many U.S. tractors India would be willing to import, and at what duty. In return, the Indian diplomat would make clear how many temporary work visas India would seek in return.

In fact, the WTO is training diplomats and officials on scheduling in the week of July 13, the chairman of negotiations on industrial goods, Swiss ambassador Luzius Wasescha, said.

This was intended to help them understand the complex process, not skip modalities, he told a briefing.

Wasescha said negotiations on creating duty-free zones in individual industrial sectors such as chemicals or textiles — one of the issues that torpedoed last July’s talks — had moved on from a rich-poor confrontation to an objective and technical examination of opportunities for importers and exporters.

“For the time being we have succeeded to bring this discussion on a factual level and we no longer have... theological discussions,” he said.

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