Zoellick Concentrates on Basics of Trade Pact; Urges WTO Leaders to Get Past Stalemate

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Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The United States wants to pick up the pieces from failed global trade talks with a "common sense" approach and a nod to some developing nation concerns, the Bush administration's top trade official said yesterday.

Rich and poor countries fought to a stalemate during World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, in September, all but ruining hope for new global rules governing trade in farm goods, manufactured goods and services by a year-end deadline.

A "good" agreement, with lower tariffs and reduced agriculture subsidies, would boost world economies by $520 billion and lift some 144 million out of poverty in the next 12 years, according to the World Bank.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, in a letter sent to WTO ministers, called on countries to advance negotiations this year by focusing on the basics of a new agreement, especially agriculture, goods and services.

"I do not want 2004 to be a lost year for the WTO negotiations," Mr. Zoellick said in the letter, dated Sunday but not publicly released. The trade office released a summary of the document yesterday.

WTO and national officials quickly took notice of the proposals.

"The renewed sense of commitment expressed by Ambassador Zoellick in his letter to ministers should give the talks needed momentum as we head into a most important year for the ... round," Supachai Panitchpakdi, the WTO's director general, said through a spokesman.

But not all reactions were positive, especially with Mr. Zoellick's proposals on agriculture. Farm trade is possibly the most sensitive issue among the WTO's 146 members and disagreement over rich country subsidies contributed to the collapse in Cancun.

The 15-nation European Union, the United States and Japan pay their farmers the most, while poorer nations complain that such supports lower commodity prices and take away their producers' chance to make a living.

Responding to developing country concerns, Mr. Zoellick said nations should eliminate agricultural export subsidies, decrease and harmonize certain subsidies, and lower tariffs and other barriers that limit trade.

"Export subsidies distort trade more than any other measure," Mr. Zoellick said.

The agriculture proposal largely took aim at the European Union, which has avoided a complete elimination of export subsidies and that pays farmers more per unit of output than the United States. …