- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

The United States and its hemispheric trading partners will likely be issuing a press release next week in Miami, touting consensus on trade, without having resolved any of the substantive differences between them. The ministers assembled to discuss a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) have agreed to agree for the cameras. By establishing such limited parameters for negotiation, it would be almost impossible to convene without some kind of ceremonial, if flimsy, agreement.

The target date for completion of the FTAA is January 2005. Though this deadline may be reached, it will likely be a triumph of style over substance. Reaching this kind of photo-op agreement in Miami is only a shade better than the ignominious collapse of global trade talks in Cancun.

Brazil has finally dropped its demand that the United States significantly reduce its farm subsidies as part of a hemispheric trade deal, in view of America’s insistence that agriculture be dealt with only in global trade talks. In response, Brazil wants to keep certain issues off the table, such as rules for investment, government procurement and intellectual property. The United States, Brazil and other countries have also apparently agreed to let countries opt out of parts of a trade deal that they don’t agree with. If this opt-out option is adopted in Miami, it will be difficult for such a provision to be kept out of a global trade deal.

The pre-summit deal-making — opt-out copouts and a range of out-of-bounds issues — is sure to produce some kind of celebratory document at the conference’s end. But the intractable disagreements, particularly in agriculture, will remain.

In view of the slow or symbolic progress on hemispheric and global fronts, some countries are increasingly eager to strike bilateral trade agreements. In a recent visit to Florida, Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez said he has communicated to the White House his desire to strike a free-trade agreement with America. In doing so, Mr. Gutierrez broke ranks with Brazil and Argentina, which want Latin America to negotiate as a solid block with America. After the breakdown in Cancun, Mr. Zoellick warned that if “multilateralism” in trade talks wasn’t successful, America would focus on bilateral agreements.

Given the crisis in Cancun and the watered-down consensus expected to emerge from Miami, bilateral or regional negotiations will be driving most trade talks. Europe is following this track as well and is in negotiations with the Mercosur customs union, which includes Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries. It looks increasingly like progress on free trade will be made the laborious, old-fashioned way: country by country.

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