The World Trade Organization has canceled a minister-level meeting scheduled for late April, admitting that members are not ready to meet a deadline for a trade liberalization deal. That deadline was set last December at the end of the WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong. The setback is further straining long-stalled trade talks aimed at helping the world's poorest countries.
World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy says it simply would not have been worth taxpayers' money for trade ministers to convene in Geneva this month. However, he said recently, a global trade deal remains possible, even if it does not come by the April 30 deadline.
"We have a missed deadline. But we have no deadlock," said Lamy.
Lamy says negotiators are making slow progress in implementing a set of trade liberalization goals agreed upon in Doha, Qatar, in 2001. The Doha Development Agenda aims to help poor nations fully benefit from increased world trade.
However, WTO members have spent years stalemated over key issues such as agricultural and industrial trade. Many developing nations and major farm exporters want more access to the agricultural markets of developed nations, while wealthy countries want more access to the markets for services and goods in poorer countries.
At the organization's Hong Kong ministerial conference in December, delegates made small steps toward a deal: wealthy nations pledged to end agricultural export subsidies by 2013, and to open their markets completely to goods from the world's poorest nations by 2008.
The delegates then promised to finalize a deal on the Doha goals by April 30.
But since then, only modest progress has been made.
Now, says Lamy, negotiators have only weeks to salvage an agreement.
"It's the sort of last lap - the sort of moment where you stretch your mandate. And you'd better get it right," he said.
There are three key players in the stalemate: the United States, the European Union, and a coalition called the G-20, which represents emerging developing countries. WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell says for a deal to be salvaged, the three groups must act as a "triangle" - taking action simultaneously.
"The United States would agree to top up its offer to reduce domestic support for agriculture producers. The EU would agree to top up its offer to open its market more to agricultural imports. And the large emerging developing countries, led by India and Brazil, would do more to top up their offer to open up their markets to industrial imports," said Rockwell.
Rockwell says negotiators will meet intensively in the coming weeks in Geneva, trying to accomplish those tasks. They will focus narrowly on technical issues, rather than engaging in open-ended political discussions.
But experts say it is impossible to avoid policy decisions requiring political will.
While most WTO members think increased trade will benefit consumers and businesses in the long run, opening markets can cause short-term domestic pain for member nations.
For example, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelsohn accuses the United States of being unrealistic in its demands for greater access to European agriculture markets. He says cheap imports would ruin the livelihoods of many European farmers, and says proposals now before the WTO do not provide enough incentive for that kind of domestic hardship.
"We are ready to pay into the round and indeed, pay more than others. But we must get something real in return," noted Mandelsohn.
Robert Portman, who will soon leave his job as U.S. trade representative, says the EU should respond to what he calls Washington's "bold offer" on agriculture. He plans to be in Geneva over the coming weeks to push through a deal.
"I'm always optimistic," said Portman. "Sometimes my optimism has not proven to be good judgment. But I have to be optimistic, it's just too important for us to allow this opportunity to let slip through our fingers."
It is ultimately a U.S. political deadline creating the urgency for the WTO. President Bush's "fast-track" trade negotiating authority, which allows him to submit deals to Congress for a simple up or down vote, expires next year and is not likely to be renewed. After that, Congress will be able to amend any deal, making U.S. approval more difficult.
Some experts say breaking the deadline actually could bring new energy to the talks.
"I've been involved with trade negotiations for a while and it does seem to me that some kind of crisis is often necessary to stimulate the final moves to narrow the gaps," commented John Weekes, a senior policy adviser for the international trade law firm Sidley Austin in Geneva. "Clearly a number of countries are going to have to do something they might prefer not to do, and they don't want to do that until they think it's absolutely necessary."
In the end, WTO staff and many experts say, if the Doha round fails, the biggest losers will be the poorest countries. Within the WTO, their vote counts as much as votes from economic superpowers such as the EU and the United States. Experts fear that if multilateral talks fail, weaker countries may see the chance to expand their markets and their economies fade away.