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Key players in Brazil seeking progress in WTO talks

Written by: Staff
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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Mar 31 (Reuters) The search for a global trade deal moved from chilly Europe to sunny Rio de Janeiro on Friday with little sign that the climate for a breakthrough in the faltering talks has markedly improved.

Key players from the United States, the European Union and Brazil, to be joined later by World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy, were meeting for what are billed as informal talks to try to find a breakthrough in differences over the opening up of markets.

Talks in Geneva and London this month made little progress and officials from all sides have played down expectations that anything dramatic will emerge from the two-day meeting in this balmy oceanside city.

''The fundamental figures don't change just because of the venue of the meeting,'' EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told Reuters before heading into the conference room.

The meeting is taking place at the elegant Copacabana Palace Hotel, a legendary haunt of playboys and rock stars that is not normally associated with efforts to set up a new world trade order and raise millions of people from poverty.

However, if they escape from its confines, they will get a stark view of the kind of inequalities the envisaged global trade accord aspires to ease - the shantytowns of Rio spill down its hills alongside luxury apartment blocks and violent crime is rife.

The players are struggling to reach an April 30 deadline for agreement on cutting tariffs on farm and manufactured goods, a vital part of the Doha Round of talks that started in 2001.

They are under pressure to reach a pact on lowering barriers by the end of the year, after which US President George W Bush will lose his authority to sign off on trade deals without Congressional approval.

The WTO's Lamy warned this week that it would be a ''huge mistake'' to miss the April deadline.

Foreign Minister Celso Amorim of Brazil, an agricultural powerhouse that has led developing nations in the Doha Round, said on Thursday that the Rio meeting was purely informal.

''Nothing will be decided there, I don't want to say that it is going to fail, no. But we are only going to discuss ideas,'' he said.

An EU official said Amorim, Mandelson and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman would focus on three core issues -- the EU's level of farm import tariffs, the U.S. level of farm subsidies, and the level of industrial import tariffs of the G-20 group of developing nations.

The poor countries want big concessions from the rich on farm exports, saying trade barriers are hurting their people.

The rich countries want greater access for their manufactured goods and service such as banking. The United States and European Union are also at odds.

In a game of brinkmanship, all sides say their proposals have gone far enough and now the others must make concessions.

A senior U.S. official said on Tuesday the talks were in ''deep trouble'' but Portman was more optimistic on Thursday, saying he expected to make headway in Rio.

The United States has been disappointed by the cool reaction of its October offer to open farm markets with a 60 percent cut in subsidies and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley last week blasted Brazil for demanding more but offering little.

REUTERS KD RAI2134

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