GENEVA — Key members of the World Trade Organization on Tuesday outlined a plan for concluding the current round of trade talks by the end of 2006 as they acknowledged they would be unable to agree on a framework treaty at next month's Hong Kong summit.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who hosted the one-day meeting with ministers from the European Union, India, Japan and Brazil, said the Hong Kong ministerial meeting will not bring an agreement on cutting tariffs and subsidies over as wide of a range of trade topics as previously hoped.
But Portman said the WTO's members would still be able to pull together a deal next year, even if the December meeting fails to deliver compromises on outstanding issues on cutting tariffs and subsidies in farm trade, manufactured goods and services.
"We need to keep the pressure on," Portman said. He added that Hong Kong still has the potential to speed progress in the talks so that they finish in a timely fashion next year.
Ministers agreed to meet again next week in Geneva and said they were looking to build on positive talks they recently had.
"We have agreed to try and bridge our differences in the course of the next weeks to Hong Kong and thereafter. We are trying to inch forward," said India's Commerce Minister Kamal Nath.
Hong Kong is supposed to outline specific measures countries must take to open up their markets, marking a crucial point in the current Doha round of global talks, named for the Qatari capital where they were launched in 2001. But in recent weeks, members have admitted that Hong Kong would fail to produce a framework treaty.
Members are under pressure to conclude the Doha round by the end of 2006 because the United States' fast-track approval process expires by July 1, 2007. The authority permits Congress only to approve or reject, without amendments, trade deals that the president sends to Capitol Hill. Without fast-track, Congress members would be free to reject specific points in any agreement, making it much more difficult to get U.S. approval.
Portman said that even though expectations for Hong Kong were lowered, WTO members are convinced they can finish the current round of global trade talks next year.
"If it blows up, nobody benefits," Portman said, noting that all members were committed to avoiding a repeat of the failed ministerial meetings in Seattle in 1999 and Cancun, Mexico, in 2003.
Ministers said it was important that Hong Kong provides a platform for further progress next year.
"We are heading in the right direction," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said. He said the five would continue working to make sure that the meeting starting Dec. 13 in Hong Kong "doesn't collapse, that it produces concrete results, positive results. It may not be the final results."
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson issued a statement saying, "We want Hong Kong to be more than treading water. It should lock in the progress made here and put in place, as far as possible, a springboard for advance in 2006."
Also on Tuesday, the heads of the WTO committees steering agriculture and industrial goods negotiations issued reports summarizing the positions of member states in their areas. While the reports outlined where members have struck compromises, they stopped short of suggesting specific cuts for tariffs and subsidies.
"You don't close divergences by having a cup of tea," Crawford Falconer, the New Zealand diplomat who heads the agricultural committee, said in his report. "If you do so, you will find that everyone has moved backwards in the meantime. That is a profound risk to our process."
Agriculture has been the key sticking point in the round and the EU, in particular, has been under fire for not making further cuts to its farm tariffs and subsidies.
But the EU's Mandelson, who has been criticized by other countries for not sufficiently opening up its farm market, has also been attacked from within the 25-nation bloc for making too many concessions.
On Monday, Mandelson received a stern warning from EU ministers not to make excessively generous offers at the Hong Kong talks and the former British minister has said there will be no new EU offer at the meeting.