Differences in efforts to spur global trade talks are narrowing but political will is needed to push them to a conclusion, World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy said Thursday. Speaking at a business forum in Sydney , the WTO director general said that negotiations on agriculture which started in Geneva on Monday were progressing well, and talks on cutting industrial tariffs would start in two weeks. If that "sleeves-up" attitude carries on, he said, revised proposals could be put on the table from the end of September aiming for "convergence on basic principles" on farm subsidies and industrial tariffs by November. That would clear a major hurdle that has stalled the so-called Doha Round of global negotiations to reduce trade barriers, and open up discussions on 18 other areas.
"The Doha talks are not any more in an impasse," Lamy told the forum on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting here, which gathers leaders and officials of 21 Pacific Rim economies. They were in... a deadlock last June," he added. "Since then, the machinery of negotiations has restarted. "If you compare the situation today to what it was a year ago, the ranges on the table are much narrower than they used to be. We're not yet there. I'm not saying it's done," he said. "I would be optimistic if I will say it will be done, but what I am saying is that it is doable, provided the necessary political energy surrounds the system."
The Doha talks, named after the Qatari capital where they were launched in 2001, are aimed at cutting subsidies and import duties which would primarily help developing nations take advantage of expanding global trade. But WTO members are at odds over the scale of cuts in barriers to trade in agriculture, industrial goods and services amid disagreements between rich and poor countries over the concessions they need to make.
Lamy is in Sydney to lobby for support to persuade the WTO's 151 members to strike a compromise. US President George W. Bush, his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe along with other APEC leaders are expected to issue an urgent call to revitalise the Doha talks at the end of their weekend summit here. But while their statement may give the process a political boost, analysts said it must be followed with instructions to country negotiators in Geneva to offer better, concrete concessions.
Lamy made a strong case for the WTO as the best framework to free up trade, saying a proposed trans-Pacific free trade zone stretching from China to Chile -- seen by some APEC states as a plan B -- would be hard to achieve. He said the WTO was a "collective insurance" against protectionism amid a proliferation of bilateral and regional free-trade pacts which have triggered criticism that the world is being sub-divided into trading blocs. "You don't have a multilateral chicken and a bilateral chicken... You don't have a multilateral cow and a bilateral cow," he said in an analogy. Lamy said negotiators for an Asia-Pacific free trade area were in any case likely to face the same problems weighing down the current Doha Round. The concept was worth studying, but "whether the odds that it will happen are there, I don't think so," he said. "Knowing a bit about the diversity and the variety of APEC countries, I think if an APEC free-trade zone was possible, then a WTO Doha deal is very easy," said Lamy.