Trade ministers begin make-or-break WTO talks

By Doug Palmer

GENEVA (Reuters) - Top trade officials begin a make-or-break session of world trade talks on Monday, haunted by failed efforts in 2006 and 2007 and concern over whether the United States can deliver on a deal.



World Bank President Robert Zoellick has called the meeting "now or never" for the Doha round, which was launched nearly seven years ago with goals to cut farm subsidies and tariffs, and to help developing countries prosper through trade.

The talks also cover manufactured goods and services, areas where rich countries like the United States and the European Union hope to make gains that will help them sell politically painful farm trade reforms at home.

"Soaring fuel and food prices are a stark reminder of the continuing inequalities of global agriculture trade. Developed countries are today responsible for the greatest distortions in the global trading system," Egypt's Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid said.

"At a time of so much suffering among poorer members, rich nations must resist protectionism, shoulder their responsibility and make the necessary policy changes," he said in a statement.

Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, sounding a hopeful note, said this week's meeting could produce a new draft text of a deal in the agriculture and manufactured goods talks.

A paper crafted by World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy should appear on Friday, Amorim said, after a developing country meeting on Sunday.

PAST FAILURES, FUTURE UNCERTAINTY

The Doha round, launched in a moment of global solidarity after the September 11 attacks on the United States, has been notable mainly for its meltdowns since then.

One year ago the talks suffered another setback at a meeting in Potsdam, Germany, that showed deep divisions remained between India and Brazil and the United States and the EU over how to reform agriculture and manufactured goods trade.

This week's talks are overshadowed by uncertainty over whether the U.S. negotiators can deliver on any deal reached in the waning months of the Bush administration.

U.S. lawmakers recently approved new farm legislation that could greatly boost farm subsidies if prices fall.

Also, the White House's authority to submit trade pacts to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without any amendments expired over one year ago.

Developing countries are pushing in the talks for deep cuts in rich country farm subsidy and tariffs, which they believe have hurt their farmers for years.

But the United States and the EU say they can only sell a deal that gives them meaningful new export opportunities and developing countries have been resisting that.

"Big emerging countries like Brazil, India and China should not hide behind the label of a developing country," said Michael Glos, economy minister of Europe's biggest economy, Germany.

"For me, it is essential that the big emerging countries take on their responsibility for the multilateral trading system. They, too, must provide real improved access to markets. Greater market access must not be a one-way street," he said in a contribution to Monday's Financial Times Deutschland.

The main pressure on Brussels at this point in the negotiations is to limit the number of "sensitive" products it shields from deep tariffs cuts.

The United States has high tariffs for farm products such as sugar, dairy products, tobacco and meat, but is mainly being asked to dramatically cut its current WTO spending ceiling for trade-distorting farm subsidies.

(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis and Jonathan Lynn; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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