Copyrighted material


by Emad Mekay

WTO Summit Flops

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- An influential U.S. lawmaker has declared the multilateral trade talks under the umbrella of the World Trade Organization (WTO) a failure and urged the Bush administration to fast-track country-to-country trade pacts.

House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas said Apr. 3 that international opposition to the WTO's comprehensive trade agenda was mounting and may be too strong to overcome.

"Right now, where we stand today, the anti-free-trade forces ... have a better chance of winning. And so my concern is what we can do in the time we have left to try and not let that happen," he said in a keynote speech to the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"What this administration ... and this Congress does in the next three months could very well shape where we go with globalization for years to come," he added.

Thomas, who is considered a staunch advocate of Bush's aggressive trade agenda, said the Doha Development Round launched in the capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in 2001 with the aim of opening markets across the globe was beset by obstacles, especially between the views of the United States and the Europeans.

This, he said, doomed the talks to failure.

"The U.S. and the EU have irreconcilable differences on trade, and when you have irreconcilable differences the best thing you can do is call it off," Thomas said.

The Bush administration says one of its top trade priorities is to conclude the Doha Development Round by the end of the year. However, last December's WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong made little progress on many of the most contentious issues, although a timeframe of 2013 was set for the elimination of farm export subsidies.

An important April 30 deadline to reach a broad agreement on tariff-cutting formulas is approaching with no major change in the negotiating positions in key areas like manufacturing and financial services.

The European Union and Japan have refused to offer significant new market access for agricultural goods, while the United States made its approval for further opening of its markets conditional on that of the EU and Japan and of major developing countries.

Washington has resisted reducing trade-distorting domestic agricultural support, a crucial demand for poor nations.

India and Brazil, two key nations in the talks, say they will not be able to unlock trade in manufactured goods and services without concessions from rich nations on agriculture, among other things.

A mini-ministerial meeting held in Davos, Switzerland, in late January failed to change those negotiating dynamics. A subsequent gathering in London also produced no new results.

"For anyone hoping for a significant conclusion to the Doha round, my apologies," Thomas said. "Whatever the last whiney note is at the Doha round, we should soldier on, but it should not be where the U.S. puts the majority of its resources."

"I don't know the exact day the music stopped, but it stopped and we need to get off the merry-go-round," the representative from California added.

Thomas argued that it was urgent to quickly sign bilateral trade deals and called on the administration to refocus its agenda, since the so-called fast track negotiating authority given to Bush will expire in July 2007. The fast-track trade promotion authority (TPA) mandate allows the administration to present trade agreements for an up-or-down vote without changes from Congress.

U.S. officials say they want to open markets across the globe and reduce trade barriers so that U.S. workers, farmers and businesses can sell their goods and services to the 95 percent of the world's consumers living outside the United States.

While bilateral deals could also achieve that, they are time consuming to negotiate on an individual basis. But with the WTO consisting of almost 150 nations and ruling by consensus, it is going to be very hard to reach a deal backed by all those nations.

Like Thomas, businesses groups are also sounding the alarm over the Doha round. On Tuesday, the American Business Coalition for Doha (ABCDoha), an umbrella group representing the diverse interests of service-providers, manufacturers and agribusiness concerns, said time was running out and urged immediate action.

Washington has moved vigorously to negotiate new bilateral and regional trade agreements but says they are only parallel to the WTO talks.

The U.S. has already concluded free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia and Oman. Negotiations are under way or about to begin with 10 more countries: Ecuador, the Republic of Korea, Panama, the five nations of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   April 5, 2006   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.