- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

MIAMI — Negotiators for a new free-trade area from Alaska to Argentina adopted a draft proposal yesterday that would allow the 34 nations participating to pick and choose among parts of the agreement, a concession by the United States in a bid to keep talks moving forward.

The “a la carte” approach would be a win for Brazil, a disappointment to many U.S. businesses and an apparent recognition that a weaker agreement is better than no agreement.

U.S. trade officials adamantly denied they backpedaled on demands.

“I don’t accept the presumption that what we negotiated is an FTAA light. The ministers have not even gotten together yet as a group,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said during a business forum.

Amid heavy security in anticipation of antiglobalization protests, trade and foreign ministers from all nations in the hemisphere, except Cuba, are in Miami this week to push Free Trade Area of the Americas talks toward a January 2005 deadline.

Deputy trade ministers drafted the weaker FTAA approach that “recognize that countries may assume different levels of commitments” and sets only one hard deadline — Sept. 30 — for rules on market access for industrial goods, a proposal drafted yesterday said.

The draft does not specify which commitments would be optional.

The agreement would create the largest free-trade area in the world, with a $13 trillion economy and 800 million people. Supporters envision new markets for U.S. goods, more investment in poor nations and lower prices for consumers.

A weaker agreement would dilute those benefits.

The full conference begins today, leaving some hope that higher-level officials will pursue a more ambitious agenda. One U.S. trade official said the American team would “negotiate like mad.”

But delegations also are mindful that global trade talks collapsed in September in Cancun, Mexico, partly over U.S.-Brazilian differences on some of the same issues that are contentious for the FTAA.

The agreement promises to cover a broad agenda but is vague on how deeply nations must commit to new rules for trade in agriculture, industrial goods and services, and legal or policy areas such as foreign investment, intellectual-property protection, antimonopoly policy, government subsidies and dispute settlement.

“I’m skeptical about any FTAA agreement that establishes only a minimum base line of commitments for all participants,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a party leader on trade issues, said in a statement.

Brazil, South America’s largest economy, had pushed hardest for the narrower approach.

Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, yesterday called the draft text a victory for the hemisphere, saying it would not force a one-size-fits-all agreement on a diverse lot of nations.

“When you talk about pick and choose, you have to remember who started this pick-and-choose process,” Mr. Amorim said, referring to U.S. reluctance to discuss agricultural subsidies and other trade barriers.

Brazil was unwilling to consider rules governing investment by foreign companies, intellectual-property rights and other sensitive areas that require a rewrite of domestic laws.

“We definitely do not want an FTAA light. [But] we do not see that has to be the outcome,” said Frank Vargo, vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Mr. Zoellick, hoping to advance the Bush administration’s trade agenda on as many fronts as possible, this week announced a series of smaller bilateral and regional agreements that more closely parallel the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed with Canada and Mexico during the Clinton administration.

The United States already has completed a pact with Chile, is in talks with five Central American countries and has announced negotiations would begin with the Dominican Republic. On Tuesday, Mr. Zoellick announced talks with four Andean nations — Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia — and Panama.

Some observers consider the smaller pacts a way to isolate Brazil and force it into a more rigorous FTAA. Mr. Zoellick said that was not the case, and Mr. Amorim said such a strategy would be a waste of time.

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