- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

U.S. and European officials meeting at an economic summit this week will try to advance World Trade Organization negotiations, though the sides remained sharply divided over who is responsible for an impasse that has blocked major progress.

Trade ministers from the U.S., the European Union (EU), Brazil, Australia and elsewhere gather starting todayin Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of political and business leaders, and to confer privately on WTO talks.

The Davos gathering, which will include roughly 30 trade ministers, is the first since a December WTO summit in Hong Kong that started with low expectations and ended with limited progress on peripheral issues.

In comments leading up to the meeting, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson outlined positions that showed that the sides remain far apart.

Mr. Portman said the talks, which started in 2001 and have since missed a series of deadlines, are hung up on issues related to agriculture. He singled out the EU’s reluctance to open its market to products from the U.S. and elsewhere.

“On agriculture, in order to keep some momentum going post-Hong Kong, the European Union must be willing to move,” he said.

“And if it’s difficult for them to propose something new, that is certainly not a concern of mine. It’s a matter of agreeing to what has become a consensus almost of the rest of the members of the WTO,” Mr. Portman said.

Mr. Mandelson said the 25-nation bloc already has made a series of concessions to reduce trade barriers and will not go further unless other countries offer to open their markets to European industrial goods and services.

“I cannot sell a deal in which Europe gives but gets nothing in return. That is not a negotiation; that is a capitulation,” Mr. Mandelson said Monday in Berlin.

“Europe is ready to give more than others. But it is not willing to get nothing in return,” Mr. to get nothing in return,” Mr. Mandelson said.

The rhetoric between the U.S. and Europe has changed little since October. It will have to give way, though, if WTO’s 149 members are to meet new deadlines — April 30 and July 31 — to deliver detailed formulas for cutting farm subsidies and a comprehensive list of tariff cuts on farm goods. The negotiations would have to be completed by the end of this year. President Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority expires in mid-2007.

TPA allows the White House to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, but requires waiting and consultation periods before the president can sign a deal, and again before legislation goes to Congress.

“Time is running short,” Mr. Portman said.

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