Ministers from six of the world's largest commercial powers put a brave face on a special session aimed at breaking a deadlock in global trade talks, but seemed no closer to an agreement.
US Trade Representative Rob Portman said on Saturday that the two days of talks "were very helpful." EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who hosted the meeting, said "we have made progress in a number of areas."
But ministers from India and Brazil, who lead the World Trade Organisation's influential G-20 group of developing countries, were both more reserved. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the talks on liberalizing markets "lack urgency" and India's Commerce and Trade Minister Kamal Nath said that ministers "need more comprehension."
"We need more understanding of the opportunities for the developing countries," Nath added. The meeting, which also included ministers from Australia and Japan, was set to continue Saturday night. Officials, who described Friday's opening session as "low-key and technical," said Saturday's talks were supposed to progress to the nitty-gritty and politically sensitive issues of tariff and subsidy cuts. But both Mandelson and Portman evaded the question of where progress had been made, citing an agreement earlier this year that they would move across all sectors in concert.
"I'm hoping tonight that we can make additional progress," Portman said, adding that differences were bridged "across the board." Ministers had played down expectations before the meeting, saying there was little chance of breakthrough in trade talks, which have suffered repeated failure and delay.
The so-called Doha round, named for the Qatari capital where it was launched by the World Trade Organization in 2001, sets out to boost the global economy and lift millions worldwide out of poverty by lowering trade barriers across all sectors - with particular emphasis on developing countries. But the round is already two years behind schedule and negotiators have been at an impasse for months, with developing countries demanding that rich nations do more to open up their farm markets. Developed countries want equal concessions in the trade of industrial goods and services, but Brazil, India and others say rich nations need to make the first move.
A 2003 meeting in Cancun, Mexico, collapsed in acrimony, and December's Hong Kong summit produced only minor agreements, putting off difficult decisions until a meeting in April, when the WTO's 149 members are supposed to reach detailed agreements on how to liberalize their markets. With the April meeting just six weeks away, the ministers said they remained committed to the deadline despite the apparent lack of significant progress in the talks.
"The click isn't yet there to have the deal," Amorim said. There have been so many delays that some observers believe the whole round could be in jeopardy because of the July 2007 expiration of the US "fast-track" authority, which requires the US Congress to either accept or reject international deals as a whole, without being able to pick them apart line by line.
And campaigners fear that negotiators are already settling for a second-best agreement, knowing any treaty demanding major concessions from the United States would have far more problems getting through Congress once "fast-track" expires. "The EU and the US have stuck to their inflexible positions and expecting poor countries to move first," said international aid agency Oxfam. "In doing so, they have put this round in jeopardy."