February 8, 2012 / 9:51 PM / 8 years ago

U.S. businesses urge new agenda at World Trade Organization

* Big U.S. companies urge new approach to trade pacts

* Groups call for focus on services trade, data flows

* U.S. Trade Representative welcomes group’s ideas

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON, Feb 8 (Reuters) - A top U.S. business group, frustrated with years of stalemate in world trade talks, on Wednesday urged the Obama administration to pursue a new agenda with fewer countries centered on services trade, health care and cross-border digital data flows.

“(We’ve) tried to come up with what we think is an appropriate agenda as we move away from Doha,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), referring to the round of trade talks launched in late 2001 with the goal of helping poor countries prosper from trade.

The group, which includes big U.S. corporations like Boeing , Caterpillar, Chevron, General Electric , IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Proctor & Gamble, United Technologies and Wal-Mart, has long pushed for a Doha round agreement among the 153 members of the World Trade Organization that would open markets in agriculture, manufacturing and services.

But those talks have been stalled since at least 2008, with the United States demanding big emerging economies like China, India and Brazil make better offers to open their markets in exchange for manufacturing tariff and farm subsidy cuts Washington was being asked to make.

The NFTC is now pushing the United States to negotiate an agreement among just those WTO countries willing to participate - even if that excludes China, India and Brazil - to liberalize trade in services including insurance, banking, logistics, energy services, telecommunications and express delivery.

It called for similar negotiations in two other areas, health care and clean technology, where the United States has many top-tier firms. And it wants a “digital economy” trade agreement to ensure the secure, predictable and open flow of information across borders.

“We are grateful to the NFTC for producing some concrete, tangible suggestions for a way forward in multilateral trade liberalization. This is exactly the kind of input we need as the U.S. works with other WTO members to consider the best paths for revitalizing the WTO’s work,” said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

The Obama administration - with a big push from another U.S. industry group, the Coalition of Services Industries - is already discussing the idea of a “plurilateral” services pact with the European Union, Japan, Canada, Chile, Colombia and about a dozen other nations.

Washington believes “services trade is a critically important area to explore, and a plurilateral approach may make the most sense at this juncture. It is notable that there is broad and growing interest in this concept among a group of developed and developing country WTO members,” Guthrie said.

But while the United States is encouraging collaboration among interested WTO members, “there’s no timeline set for negotiation,” she added.

The NFTC’s proposal also includes quickly finishing talks on trade facilitation, one part of the Doha round that many believe can still be brought to agreement.

Such a pact would commit countries to reforming customs procedures to ease the flow of goods across borders and reduce delays that increase the cost of doing business.

Recent talks in Geneva indicate broad interest among both developed and developing countries “in continuing to make steady, bottom up progress” on trade facilitation, Guthrie said. “We look forward to participating in that effort.”

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