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Trade ministers agree to restart talks on global deal

Global trade ministers said they'll restart talks on a free-trade agreement, breathing life into the process without specifying how they'd bridge their differences or setting a date for the resumption of full-scale negotiations. 

„We're going back to the table, period. Nothing is resolved,” French Trade Minister Christine Lagarde said in an interview today in Davos, Switzerland after the trade officials met on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. „We agreed we're getting back to work. That's all.” Negotiations on a global agreement among the World Trade Organization's 150 member governments broke down in July due to quarrels over farm subsidies and tariffs. At stake is an accord the World Bank reckons could lift millions from poverty worldwide and pump at least $96 billion into the global economy by knocking down barriers to trade in goods and services. World leaders, including US President George W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, have urged their negotiators in recent days to strike a deal, to avert the prospect of a protectionists wave. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday failure to reach an agreement would be „catastrophic.” Corporate chieftains have also stepped up their calls for a break-through as fears that the talks would collapse mounted.

WTO chief Pascal Lamy told reporters today that no date was set for the resumption of full-scale negotiations and that ministers had left it up to him to decide when the time would be ripe to go ahead. „It's a question of months rather than quarters” when the talks will resume, he added. Trade officials hope to reach the broad outlines of an accord in the next few months before President Bush's „fast- track” ability to negotiate trade deals expires at the end of June. That would put the Democrat-controlled Congress on the spot for scuttling an agreement if they don't renew Bush's authority to strike a deal without fear of having it amended by lawmakers. „The US will need trade promotion authority to implement an agreement,” US Trade Representative Susan Schwab said. „A breakthrough would contribute to us gaining traction on that.” Schwab said the US was willing to make more concessions on agriculture trade provided that others did the same. „In the context of a larger package, we have to be prepared to do more,” she said.

European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told the ministerial meeting that the EU was also willing to do more by expanding its cuts in agricultural tariffs to more than 49%. „We are ready to do this in a way that demonstrably gives new market access to all exporters, and all products,” he said, a text of his remarks released by the EU showed. „No loopholes.” Some of those attending the Davos forum doubted that a deal would be struck. „This is all rhetoric,” said Roshaneh Zafar, president of Kashf Foundation a Lahore, Pakistan-based microcredit agency. „Given what's happened in the past, unless the political will is strong, clear and visible, this isn't going to happen.” Schwab said the ministers still don't agree on what she called the „top-line numbers” -- the average cuts in agricultural tariffs and subsidies that will be enshrined in any agreement. Instead, they have decided to focus on product-by-product negotiations to see what can be achieved.

Neither US nor EU trade officials have a completely free hand in the talks. To win renewal of trade promotion authority, the Bush administration must reach a pact that will pass muster with a hostile Congress. In the EU, French officials have resisted further concessions on opening agriculture trade. France holds presidential elections in April and May and farmers are a major voting bloc. Mandelson said some EU nations were worried that he was offering more concessions than had been mandated by his political masters. „I am not allowed to exceed my mandate,” he told a meeting at the world forum. „We're now in the endgame,” Mandelson said. „This is going to end in success or failure in the next two to three months.” (Bloomberg)