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WTO talks gather pace ahead of summit

Agriculture will be one of the key issues at the WTO talks

(Keystone)

Meetings are due to take place in Switzerland this week to speed up negotiations ahead of a crucial World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Hong Kong in December.

Swiss officials hope the move will help break the current impasse over agriculture and pave the way for a global WTO deal on lowering trade barriers.

Trade ministers from at least 16 countries are scheduled to meet in Zurich on Monday at the request of the United States trade representative, Rob Portman. Economics Minister Joseph Deiss will attend for Switzerland.

On Tuesday the talks will move to Geneva, with the G20 bloc of developing nations assembling in the morning. This is to be followed in the afternoon by a meeting of the US, the European Union, Brazil, Australia and India – the so-called Five Interested Parties (FIPs).

An extended FIP meeting is set to take place on Wednesday in Geneva, which Deiss will also attend. On Thursday the WTO's Trade Negotiations Committee will also meet to take stock of the negotiations.

"The whole idea of all these talks is to give momentum to preparations for Hong Kong and probably by the end of the week we'll have a first idea of the level of ambition for [the December meeting]," said senior Swiss trade official Luzius Wasescha.

Controversy

All topics are due to be discussed, say officials. But the agriculture dossier is likely to cause the most controversy.

"The US is supposed to announce a new offer in terms of its domestic subsidies which are greatly distorting world trade and preventing developing countries from reaching the markets," said Christian Häberli, head of International Affairs at the Federal Agriculture Office, ahead of the talks.

"This possible development could pave the way for compromise solutions between all partners involved," he told swissinfo.

"That is why Joseph Deiss is extremely anxious and involved in these negotiations in Zurich and then Geneva to see how we can safeguard our interests."

The US has since indicated that it would consider changes. On Sunday Portman said the country would be prepared to cut farm subsidies by 60 per cent in the next five years and eventually eliminate them.

But it wants bigger cuts by the EU and Japan in return, he said.

Developing nations are calling on richer countries to stop subsidising local agriculture. The industrialised nations say they are ready to do this, but in return they want a broader opening of markets for their goods and services.

Challenge

"The challenge for us depending on the result of these negotiations ... [is that] this could lead to an acceleration of what is called mildly structural adjustments, which is considerably faster than anything we have seen in the last 50 years," Häberli told swissinfo.

WTO member states aim to thrash out the terms of a deal before they meet in Hong Kong from December 13-18, where it is hoped the Doha round of trade talks will be concluded after four years of negotiations.

The Doha round is designed to reduce protectionism and promote trade to aid development in poorer countries.

Experts have warned that failure to agree a blueprint at the Hong Kong summit could kill off the Doha round completely. It has already missed its initial 2004 deadline.

But Wasescha is confident that some progress can be made in Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong has to be a success," he said. "I think it's realistic to believe that the Doha round can be achieved by the end of 2006. And if Hong Kong doesn't get that far, but goes in that direction, then work has to be accelerated next year."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

Launched in November 2001, the Doha round of trade negotiations was to have concluded last year.
However, negotiations failed at the ministers' conference in Cancun, Mexico, in September 2003.
The 148 WTO members now hope to conclude the round by the end of next year.
The next key stage will be the ministerial conference in Hong Kong in December.

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