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Last updated: January 29, 2006 6:03 pm

Ministers promise to accelerate pace of Doha talks

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Ministers have promised to start making the vital trade-offs that will enable the stuttering Doha round of global trade talks to reach its target of an outline deal by the end of April.

Meeting this weekend at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, around 25 trade ministers promise to accelerate the pace of the talks.

At last month’s World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Hong Kong , ministers agreed to come up with numerical formulas for cutting farm and industrial goods tariffs by the end of April.

“It is not going to happen unless there is a significant change in style, pace and content,” said Rachid Mohammed Rachid after this weekend’s ministerial, the Egyptian minister who co-ordinates African countries in the talks.

Several more months will be required to turn the formulas into specific commitments. The effective deadline for an agreement is the June 2007, the expiry date for the White House’s trade promotion authority that prevents the US Congress picking apart the agreement line by line.

Brazil - which co-ordinates the Group of 20 developing countries - and the US have blamed slow progress on the EU for proposing only moderate cuts in farm tariffs.

On Saturday Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner, claimed there was a new consensus that the big developing countries like India and China would simultaneously pledge bigger liberalisation of their industrial goods and services markets in return for more cuts in farm protection.

“The mood of Davos has clearly turned away from new headline offers in agriculture to see how we can move together on all fronts,” Mr Mandelson said. Mr Rachid said that the phase of treating agriculture as more important than the rest of the talks was over.

Rob Portman, US trade representative, agreed that there was broad consensus on the need to reach trade-offs. But he said that much work remained to be done by WTO member governments in building public support for changes in tariffs and subsidies.

Tensions in the talks were evident even after Saturday’s meeting. Mr Mandelson and Celso Amorim, the Brazilian foreign minister, had a testy exchange during a panel discussion at the Davos forum. Mr Mandelson accused Brazil, a highly efficient agricultural exporter, of passing off its own interests as those of all developing countries, many of which want to keep high tariffs to protect their own farmers.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, has been canvassing support among heads of government, including Tony Blair, UK prime minister, for a special meeting to demonstrate political backing for the round. But Mr Mandelson said that such a “one-shot” initiative should be reserved until the right time.

“That time is not now,” Mr Mandelson told the FT. “I know the British prime minister is keen on this and I value his interest but I think he should show a bit more patience.”

Some delegates identified mid-March as a likely date for the next meeting of ministers to assess progess in the talks.

Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the WTO, was optimistic. “They all realise that they have to stop digging defensive tactical holes,” he said. “They need to step out of the holes and reach an agreement.”

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