The Doha round of trade talks juddered back to life over the weekend, with leading countries expressing enthusiasm for clinching a deal but giving few details about how it would work.
Meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about 30 ministers instructed their officials to step up talks to reach a framework deal, especially on agriculture.
It was a rare achievement in a forum dominated by debate about climate change.
The revival of the round after its suspension last July follows a series of bilateral talks that included the European Union, the United States and large emerging market countries such as Brazil. Negotiating committees of officials at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva will reconvene at a senior level, although the talks agreed it would be premature to call a full meeting of ministers from the WTO’s 150 member countries.
Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner, said compromise was needed to preserve the credibility of the multilateral trade system.
“We will have to accept that the alternative to what’s on the table is not the perfect deal but no deal at all,” he told the meeting.
He said in public what he has said in private – that the EU would improve its offer to cut farm tariffs by an average of 39 per cent to close to 54 per cent.
This would be accompanied by cuts in industrial goods and services protection. “I emphatically reject the view that, overall, this outcome would be Doha lite,” Mr Mandelson said.
All agreed that headline averages were misleading. The degree of liberalisation depended on how many products were subject to which cuts in import tariffs and the size of new quotas for farm imports partially shielded from tariff cuts.
A flurry of bilateral meetings are trying to pin down specific decisions, out of which a numerical deal will be reverse-engineered.
Mr Mandelson told a discussion on the Doha round: “It will end with success or failure in the next two to three months, in my view.”
That timeline would require agreement before the French presidential election, the first round of which is on April 22.
France remains the most outspoken opponent of a deal that would expose European farmers to competition from abroad. Christine Lagarde, French trade minister, on Sunday played down the significance of the decision to restart talks.
Celso Amorim, Brazilian trade minister who leads the Group of 20 developing countries, said he expected a big breakthrough in late March or early April, and a full framework deal agreed by the end of June.
Many at Davos, including ministers, executives and US politicians, expressed scepticism that a deal was possible. It was unlikely the US Congress would renew the president’s “trade promotion authority” when it expired at the end of June, they said.
Rachid Mohammed Rachid, Egyptian trade minister, said: “This is the third Davos meeting of trade ministers in succession that has had the same talks and still nothing has happened.”
Susan Schwab, US trade representative, said the administration was more likely to renew the TPA if a deal emerged that opened up export markets for America’s farmers.
The forum was otherwise dominated by talk about climate change that produced little progress. Companies were convinced they needed to plan for the price of carbon emissions to rise, but there were few signs that the world would easily agree limits on greenhouse gases for the developed world and commitments from the developing world.
Economists and finance ministers were unusually optimistic about economic growth in every region.