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Little progress reported in WTO talks

Despite a flurry of high level meetings over the past weeks, senior trade officials with the World Trade Organization admit that members are still far from achieving a breakthrough in the Doha Round of trade talks.

Trade negotiators told representatives of Education International in Geneva last month that they are increasingly pessimistic a deal will be reached anytime soon because of continuing divisions amongst members, particularly over the make-or-break issue of agricultural subsidies and tariffs.

"We've a long way to go to reach a deal," one official confided. "There are many, many outstanding issues and we remain at an impasse."

The chair of the agricultural negotiations, New Zealand's WTO Ambassador Crawford Falconer told a news conference last month that a continued lack of progress threatens to diminish interest in the negotiations.

"The real danger is not people getting angry, it's the energy running out," Falconer said. "It's not there yet, but you're beginning to see that kind of skeptical resignation at the moment. At some point negotiators are going to get real grumpy, or else they're going to get down to work and get on with it."

A senior European Union official echoed the growing sense of pessimism amongst negotiators, saying that any breakthrough in the Doha Round of trade talks is unlikely to be achieved before the WTO's summer break.

The EU's director-general for agriculture, Jean-Luc Demarty, reportedly told officials at a high level meeting in Brussels in March that while he expected a deal on agriculture would be reached, it would not take place before September.

Ministers from the so-called "Group of 4" countries - the US, EU, India and Brazil - met with WTO Director General Pascal Lamy in London and Geneva the first week of March, but no breakthrough was reached.

Following the meetings, outgoing French President Jacques Chirac revealed internal divisions within the EU by lashing out against trade commission Peter Mandelson, whom he accused of selling European farmers short in the talks.

Chirac warned that France would stand firm against any proposals that would "give away more" to the US and developing countries.

The top trade officials from the Group of 4 later promised to step up their efforts to reach a deal that would allow the Doha Round of trade talks to successfully conclude by the end of the year.

They also agreed to meet again in mid-May, likely in conjunction with the OECD annual ministerial meeting in Paris, to assess the progress made.

However, the Group of 4 had issued a similar promise in January to intensify talks following a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Meanwhile, looming over the negotiations is the impending end of June expiry of the US administration's "trade promotion authority" (TPA). Without this mandate, President George W. Bush will lose his ability to submit trade agreements to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments.

Both President Bush and WTO Director General Pascal Lamy have warned that the Doha Round can not be successfully concluded without the renewal of TPA.

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