Last chance for Doha accord before US poll

Trade ministers from several key nations will meet during the World Economic Forum in Davos today. Although the gathering of 25 ministers from powers such as the United States, the UK, India, Brazil, Egypt, Norway and Canada is informal, they will be joined by the head of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, and the European trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson.

Despite many false dawns, hopes are running relatively high that some further progress can be made at the lunch meeting today. Sources close to the talks say that "more has been achieved in the trade talks than most people realise" and that the troublesome agriculture chapter of the Doha trade treaty is "almost completed". Problems still surround industrial tariffs and the liberalisation of service sectors in the developing world.

The WTO's Doha round of negotiations is running out of time. An outline of an agreement needs to be finalised by Easter if the talks are to completed with a formal treaty by the end of this year. This is regarded as essential because of the timing of the American elections in November. A new incumbent in the White House would almost certainly look afresh at the treaty, and Mr Mandelson has raised doubts about the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's attitude to free trade: "The things she's been saying reverberate around the world. This is the last year the Doha trade round can survive. There is little chance of a breakthrough after this president leaves office. People in the current administration tell me the US is turning into a protectionist country. It is a serious concern."

President George Bush is keen to see the negotiations completed before he leaves office, and those near the talks say that the participants should "capitalise on that commitment". It is thought that if progress is not made today and over the next few weeks, the Doha round itself will be in jeopardy.

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