- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman on Sunday plans to host trade ministers from 15 nations as World Trade Organization talks enter a crucial phase ahead of a December summit in Hong Kong.

“We are going to attempt to find that consensus we need to make Hong Kong successful,” Mr. Portman told The Washington Times yesterday.

The 15-party gathering, part of a larger series of meetings in Zurich, would bring together rich and poor nations “that are particularly interested in trade,” Mr. Portman said, without identifying the countries.

A separate source said a partial list includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, the 25-nation European Union, India, Kenya, Korea, Mexico and Switzerland.

The WTO’s 148 members are trying to create a new set of global rules that would lower trade barriers, eliminate some government subsidies to farmers and open more markets to foreign competition. The Doha Development Agenda formed in 2001, but talks have progressed in fits and starts.

“It won’t be easy to pull together enough of a consensus to have Hong Kong be successful,” Mr. Portman said, acknowledging the difficulties in past negotiations.

But he said he was optimistic.

“I just feel like we are beginning to get closer to the kind of breakthrough we need to make Hong Kong successful,” he said.

Mr. Portman was sworn in as U.S. trade representative in May and has since worked to enact the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which squeaked through the House by two votes, to manage bilateral trade talks with 10 nations, and to negotiate with or confront China on a host of commercial disputes.

The WTO talks, though, are considered by businesses and farm groups to offer the biggest potential reward if they succeed in lowering trade barriers. The World Bank estimates that a “good” WTO agreement would boost world economies by $520 billion and lift about 144 million people out of poverty over the next decade.

But WTO members remain fractured over how to reach that goal. The biggest point of contention, though not the only, involves a demand by developing countries that rich nations end farm subsidies, a concession they are willing to make only in return for greater access to developing country markets.

Subsidies — worth an estimated $19.5 billion to U.S. farmers, roughly $48 billion to Europeans and smaller amounts to Japanese, Norwegians and others — can lower commodity and food prices globally, reducing incomes of farmers in poorer countries.

“The message is pretty straightforward — unless there is meaningful market access it is difficult to see how Doha can be a success,” Mr. Portman said. But he added that the United States needed to send “strong signals” to other countries, including the “prospect of real movement [on subsidies] on our side.”

President Bush last month told world leaders the United States would eliminate its tariffs, subsidies and other trade barriers if other nations do the same. “This is key to overcoming poverty in the world’s poorest nations,” Mr. Bush said at the United Nations.

Congress has been reluctant to lower the payouts, refusing, for example, to follow up on a Bush administration request to comply with a WTO ruling by scaling back a program for cotton farmers.

Mr. Portman, an Ohio member of Congress before Mr. Bush tapped him as trade envoy, said he has listened to lawmakers’ concerns, and acknowledged there are limits to what the United States can offer other countries.

“We’ll walk away from a bad deal,” he said.

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