Global free trade talks collapse in Geneva

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2013 12:42 a.m.

GENEVA (AP) — Negotiators came tantalizingly close but failed to clinch a global free trade deal after more than a decade of talks that could have boosted the world economy by $1 trillion, the head of the World Trade Organization said Tuesday.

Roberto Azevedo said diplomats from the WTO’s 159 members tried hard but “cannot cross the finish line here in Geneva” ahead of a summit where ministers were to have signed the deal in Bali, Indonesia next week.

He said more progress was made in the past weeks than over the past five years, but that was still not enough as some countries were proving inflexible on some issues.

“Time would not remedy this situation,” he told a news conference.

The negotiations sought to ease the rules of global commerce by cutting red tape to open markets and help develop poorer economies. They also focused on tariff quotas, government incentives for exports and agriculture issues such as subsidies for grain stockpiling.

But disputes between major economies such as the United States, the European Union, China and India bogged down the discussions.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Michael Punke expressed “a great deal of sadness” over the failure.

“We’re worried — alongside so many in this room — that a once-in-a-generation opportunity may have slipped our grasp,” he said.

Some diplomats, like Moroccan Ambassador Omar Hilale, held out hope that trade ministers could still reach a deal when they meet in Bali. But most said it was too late.

Azevedo said there remains so much disagreement that several more weeks of negotiations could not close the gaps.

“Holding negotiations in the short time we’ll have in Bali would be simply impractical with over 100 ministers around the table,” he said.

The Bali summit has been cast as a last chance to revive the so-called “Doha Round” of WTO-brokered talks that began in Qatar in 2001 and frustrated Azevedo’s predecessor, Pascal Lamy.

The lack of a global deal has not prevented individual countries from making agreements among themselves. The European Union, for example, has signed free trade pacts with South Korea and Canada. It is in separate talks with the U.S. and Japan as well.

But Azevedo said the failure to reach a global deal leaves poorer countries worse off.

It also hurts the WTO’s credibility. The WTO will only be viewed as a trade court and no longer as a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements, he said.

“We will fail not only the WTO and multilateralism,” he said. “We will also fail our constituencies at large, the business community and, above all, the vulnerable among us. We will fail the poor worldwide.”

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