Fresh doubts cast on hopes for trade deal

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The Independent Online

Hopes of a deal on world trade took a battering yesterday as the US negotiator, one of the key players in the talks, was moved to another job in Washington, prompting fears the negotiations are doomed.

The decision to nominate the US Trade Representative Robert Portman to the post of White House budget director was greeted with ill-disguised dismay in Brussels where there was already concern over deadlock.

Peter Mandelson, the European trade commissioner, welcomed the nomination of Susan Schwab, Mr Portman's deputy, as his successor. But after praising Mr Portman, he said: "We will of course manage without him, but at this stage it would have been easier to manage with him."

Peter Allgeier, the US ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, said there will be "no change in the US trade policy". However, an EU official argued: "This looks like bad news for the Doha talks at a time when negotiations are fragile because it is bound to lead to further uncertainty."

Optimists say the change of US Trade Representative may afford the US, which has made tough demands on the Europeans over agriculture, more flexibility to change position.

Mr Portman's departure comes at a sensitive moment, with the secretary general of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, due to decide whether to hold a crucial meeting next week.