Key deadline out of reach for WTO

Geneva, April 21:

A key World Trade Organisation (WTO) deadline which was set to get some momentum back into global trade talks looked out of reach on Friday as governments failed to narrow enduring differences.

WTO governments, who have a history of missing the targets they have placed and replaced during more than four years of their Doha Round talks, have been unable to get close to a deal by April 30. European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson said today that the WTO’s 149 member governments had not narrowed their differences enough to reach an agreement on a crucial plank of the talks by the end of this month.

“The convergence between the different positions will not have been reached by the end of April and therefore it must be questionable whether a further ministerial meeting should be held to confirm an agreement,” Mandelson said. Mandelson was referring to a session

at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters which was loosely scheduled to take place at the end of this month but which has remained on ice because of rising doubts that negotiators would be ready in time.

Senior diplomats representing WTO members are to gather Monday to review the impasse, the global body said. The deadline of April 30 was part of a loose accord reached at a WTO conference last December in Hong Kong. At the conference, governments tried to bring some momentum back to the struggling Doha Round of negotiations, which was launched in 2001 with the aim of tearing down barriers to commerce and using trade to boost the economies of poor nations.

They agreed by the end of this month to come up with what are known in WTO-speak as ‘modalities,’ or formulas and other guidelines for reducing trade barriers. But cross-cutting disputes among WTO members, particularly arguments between rich and poor members about concessions in the farm trade, have prevented negotiators from agreeing on the mathematics.

Governments originally planned to complete the round by the end of 2004, and had aimed to fix the modalities at a meet in Cancun, Mexico in September 2003. However, that meeting collapsed in acrimony and there was little progress until July 2004, when members managed a loose deal at a meeting in Geneva.

Thereafter, they missed several further informal deadlines and in the three months leading up the the Hong Kong conference they decided to downgrade the role of the meeting, which had originally been meant to cap the round. The April 30 target is part of a drive to complete the round by the end of the year, before the White House loses its ‘fast track’ authority to negotiate trade deals in 2007.

In July 2007, US Congress is set to regain its power to pick apart any trade accord, rather than having to approve or reject it in one go, and that has the potential to complicate future talks. Asked what was needed to keep efforts on track, Mandelson said that members needed to be flexible.

“If we do that with seriousness and commitment, then we can reach an accord, not by the end of April, but in a period of weeks following,” he said. Beyond then, however, WTO members are set to face a further crunch: they have a July 31 target ‘schedules,’ which set out in detail how governments would implement the formal trade treaty.