- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The top U.S. trade negotiator yesterday remained publicly upbeat after three days of meetings meant to spur World Trade Organization (WTO) talks, though officials in Geneva made scant progress on the stalled negotiations.

“The next four to six weeks will be the moment of truth,” said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

The WTO’s 149 members since 2001 have been working to strike an agreement that would lower trade barriers and boost economic growth, especially for developing countries. But negotiators consistently have fought over the extent and speed of opening their markets to competition and have missed a series of deadlines.

The latest deadline passed Sunday. Officials now are trying to salvage the talks by this summer.

“Every time another deadline is missed, it becomes more difficult to put together a meaningful package,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank.

Mr. Portman this week met in Geneva, where the WTO is based, with trade ministers from Brazil, Japan and Australia.

But the sharpest differences for the United States are with the 25-nation European Union. EU Trade Minister Peter Mandelson did not attend the Geneva sessions.

“He didn’t attend Geneva for the simple reason that he spoke to [WTO Director-General] Pascal Lamy and came to the view there were not negotiations going on in Geneva,” said Peter Power, Mr. Mandelson’s spokesman.

But Mr. Power said Europe remains “committed to a deal by this summer.”

The United States has demanded that Europe cut farm subsidies and open its market further than the bloc has been willing.

“But the problem is not only the Europeans. There is also an unwillingness among countries such as India, Brazil and China to give more ground,” Mr. Hufbauer said.

The Bush administration is running out of time to wrap up a deal and submit it to Congress. Trade promotion authority, which allows the president to negotiate trade deals and submit them to lawmakers for an up-or-down vote, without amendments, expires July 1, 2007.

The WTO’s members first must settle on a broad agreement. Then they will negotiate the fine print of the deal, a process that has taken more than a year in the past.

Trade promotion authority requires consultations with Congress and includes a series of procedural steps that place the practical deadline for a final deal in December.

Congress could renew trade promotion authority, effectively extending the deadline.

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