- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

U.S. trade officials flew into Cancun, Mexico, over the weekend with an aggressive agenda to lower barriers and set far-reaching rules for international trade in farm products, manufactured goods and services.

“The U.S. has sought to be very ambitious because we see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, said Thursday.

Mr. Zoellick and his team will meet with 145 other World Trade Organization members that have widely divergent priorities and sharp differences over trade policy.

Delegates will gather formally Wednesday through Sunday for the WTO’s fifth major meeting of trade ministers from around the globe.

Almost two years ago in Doha, Qatar, trade ministers set up 21 subjects for negotiation — including agricultural subsidies, tariffs on manufactured goods and special treatment for poor countries — with a deadline of January 2005 to wrap up talks that would rework the world trading system. This week, the trade officials will assess where they stand.

Specific deadlines and goals also will be tied to the talks. To meet their deadlines, ministers must be able to lay down at least a framework to guide staff members who carry out day-to-day negotiations in Geneva.

“It’s more than a midpoint review, in my opinion. It is the first time [since November 2001 that trade ministers] come together and express the political will to continue,” said Scott Miller, lobbyist with Procter & Gamble and chairman of a business coalition that supports aggressive moves to ease trade.

“There has been progress over the last 22 months. The question now for the next 16 months is how to translate that into results,” Mr. Miller said.

U.S. trade officials have downplayed expectations. No agreements with specific numbers and formulas are expected out of Cancun.

Difficulties reflect widely diverging agendas. Developed and developing nations often have the deepest divisions, but neither side is lumped formally into opposing alliances, and ad-hoc groupings of countries sometimes emerge to support different issues.

Differences are especially acute with agriculture, the topic at the core of the agenda.

WTO members two years ago agreed to set formulas for reducing agricultural tariffs, export subsidies and domestic supports by March 31 this year. Individual countries were to present specific commitments during the Cancun meeting.

Instead, the March deadline passed with no resolution, and expectations for Cancun were diminished. The United States and European Union made a joint proposal on agriculture in August. Several other blocs, the largest led by Brazil, have formed with alternative plans.

Trade negotiators hope to agree on a general document, with no specific numbers, in hopes of advancing agricultural talks.

“You should not expect detailed algorithms or formulas on how one is going to cut tariffs,” said a senior U.S. trade official who asked not to be named.

Also dividing developed and developing nations are so-called Singapore issues — investment rules, competition policy, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation.

Trade negotiators are supposed to decide whether to add to the final agenda new rules and requirements that delve into domestic laws.

The 15-nation European Union and Japan have supported the new rules. EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy last week said it would be important to balance lower tariffs and subsidies with new rules.

The United States supports stronger rules governing government procurement and trade facilitation, but has been lukewarm on investment and competition. Many developing nations adamantly oppose efforts to expand the WTO’s reach.

“The majority of members, developing countries, think [the WTO] should be limited to trade, and they want fairer rules in trade. The U.S., European Union and Japan are seeking a global governance system, with rules that require signatories to change domestic laws,” said Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch, part of a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader.

“The entire process is jammed, but few people look at why. It is because there are totally different views on what the WTO should be,” she said.

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