WTO nations are inching slowly toward a deal on liberalising global commerce but negotiators must put more on the table if they want to conclude their Doha Round talks, top officials from rival trading nations said Tuesday.
"We are relatively close in most areas," outgoing US Trade Representative Rob Portman told reporters following a meeting with Pascal Lamy, head of the 149-nation World Trade Organisation.
"The United States believes that we ought to be ambitious across the board, in services, in non-agricultural market access and agriculture," Portman said.
"In some of those areas we are closer than others. But we believe it's within reach. We believe that there is a way for us to get to a yes and to come up with a successful conclusion of the round."
Negotiations have stumbled repeatedly since their launch in late 2001 in the Qatari capital Doha with the goal of slashing barriers to commerce and harnessing trade to boost development in poor countries.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, who met with Portman in Geneva Tuesday and said he had also spoken by telephone with European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, later commented: "Everyone I talk to, with obvious nuances, is continuing to work for a basic deal by June or July.
"I more or less see where the gaps lie. Are they bridgeable? In principle yes. But it will depend on political will," Amorim said.
Amorim said that he had received "indications of flexibilities" but declined to give details. On Monday, Lamy warned negotiators that they had "no more time to spare", calling for "meaningful progress" within "weeks rather than months".
Lamy has referred regularly to the "triangle" needed to spur the talks, pressing Washington to make concessions on the subsidies it pays US farmers, Brussels to offer more access for agricultural imports into the EU, and key emerging nations such as Brazil and India in turn to cut barriers to commerce in industrial goods.
Amorim said developing countries acknowledge that they must offer something in return for eventual concessions by rich countries, but that the wealthy must still do more.
"It is not a triangle in which the three sides are equal. You cannot treat equally things that are inherently unequal," he cautioned.
In a joint statement after they met in Geneva on Tuesday, Portman and Australian Minister for Trade Mark Vaile said that a deeper cut in EU duties on imported farm goods was "the key to resolving outstanding differences." Later, when asked by reporters if the EU was most at fault for the sluggish pace of talks, Vaile said: "We're not going to get into a blame game here. The members of this organisation share collective responsibility for the process, however fast or slow it is going." For developing countries, bridging the gap in talks on industrial goods "is one of the keys to getting a decent outcome in agriculture," Vaile added.
On April 30, WTO governments missed their target for a deal on the mathematical formulas for reducing customs duties and other trade barriers.
The deadline had been part of a timetable set at a WTO conference in Hong Kong last December in a drive to complete the Doha Round by the end of 2006, two years later than originally planned.
High in negotiators' minds is the expected July 2007 expiry of the White House's special authority to cut trade deals. Known as the "fast-track" option, the facility allows a US administration to negotiate trade accords that can be either rejected or accepted by Congress but not amended.
Without such authority, WTO members fear that a re-empowered and skeptical US Congress could hamper future talks.
On July 31, negotiators face another target-they aim by then to set out how countries would implement the trade treaty that would mark the end of the round.