Global trade talks collapse

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Global commerce talks at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva collapsed today as top powers failed to agree on steps towards liberalising trade in farm and manufactured goods.

The Indian Trade Minister Kamal Nath said the talks had been suspended and added that "it could take anywhere from months to years," to restart the negotiations. "This is a serious setback, a major setback," said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

The meeting had been called by WTO chief Pascal Lamy with ministers from Australia, Brazil, the 25-nation European Union, India, Japan and the United States to try to re-energise the talks.

Leaders of the Group of Eight major industrialised countries reaffirmed their commitment to the talks at their summit in Russia last week, but that failed to translate into real negotiating action as officials said yesterday's meeting failed to generate the new movement hoped for after the pledges of support from the world's most powerful presidents and prime ministers.

"Unfortunately things became clear yesterday that 'Doha light' seems still to be the preferred option of some of the participants," US Trade Representative Susan Schwab told reporters at the World Trade Organisation today.

US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the proposed steps forward from other countries "appeared to be getting lighter and lighter in the last few weeks."

"Today truly represents a failure," Johanns said.

He blamed Brazil and India for being inflexible on their refusal to cut barriers to industrial imports and the EU for refusing to open up its farm markets.

"There was just simply nothing there," Johanns said.

He said the United States indicated it could increase its offer to cut subsidies to American farmers, but he would not say whether the US team had made a concrete proposal.

Schwab said the US was committed to "a robust, ambitioned and balanced round." Other officials, though, suggested the failure of leading commercial powers to make compromises would wreck the talks.

She said it was for Lamy to decide when talks should be restarted.

"We need to focus on how to look forward ... without this degenerating into a finger-pointing exercise," Schwab said.

The complex trade talks aim to boost the global economy and lift millions out of poverty worldwide by lowering trade barriers across all sectors, with particular emphasis on clearing obstacles to increased exports from developing countries.

But the Doha round has stalled because of differences between rich and poor countries, as well as between the EU and the US The Doha negotiations are named for the Qatari capital where they were launched in 2001.

Most countries have been sticking rigidly to the same positions they have maintained for months.

The entire process is rapidly running out of time because US President George Bush's authority to "fast track" the trade deal - enabling US envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yea-or-nay vote without amendments - runs out in mid-2007.

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