- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

President Bush’s top trade negotiator said yesterday that a meeting next month of 148 countries will not be able to achieve a hoped-for breakthrough.

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman’s comments came after three days of talks in London and Geneva. The discussions failed to clear obstacles so negotiators could agree in December on the outlines of a deal to lower tariffs and other barriers for manufactured goods, services such as banking and insurance, and farm products.

The meeting Dec. 13-18 in Hong Kong is taking place under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.

“I am sorry to report that we’ve not made the progress that we had hoped to make in order to put together a program for the Hong Kong meeting that would enable us to set forth a framework,” Mr. Portman told reporters on a conference call.

Various trade ministers said the 25-nation European Union was the major stumbling block because of its refusal to go further in reducing barriers that protect European farmers.

Mr. Portman hoped for some progress in Hong Kong in narrowing the differences and that the overall goal still was to wrap up the talks by the end of 2006.

“It would be a grave mistake to declare this round at an end,” said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who participated in the conference call. “There is still an entire year ahead of us.”

Private economists said the failure of this week’s talks was a troubling prelude to the Hong Kong meetings.

“The short-term and midterm prospects look pretty dim for a breakthrough,” said Dan Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank.

Referring to two earlier trade sessions, he said, “The best we can hope for is to avoid a Seattle-Cancun style of meltdown, which would be devastating.”

A meeting of trade ministers in Seattle in December 1999 failed to start new trade talks and was marred by rioting by anti-globalization protesters.

Talks did finally get under way in Doha, Qatar, in December 2001, but a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003 failed to make progress in narrowing differences.

Today, many foreign leaders are facing a backlash against trade liberalization.

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