Ministers seek Plan B for Hong Kong trade talks

Geneva, Nov 22 | Updated: Nov 23 2005, 05:35am hrs
Five top trade powers explored ways on Tuesday to ensure that coming talks in Hong Kong, once seen as a make-or-break forum for a global free trade deal but since downgraded, can still be a springboard to an accord.

The five-day ministerial conference in mid-December, bringing together all 148 members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), was supposed to end four years of hard bargaining with a draft pact on issues such as slashing rich nation farm subsidies and opening up markets worldwide.

With differences still too deep for that, WTO chief Pascal Lamy recommended dropping the bar for the Dec. 13-18 conference in order to avoid the risk of failure. But this left the meeting with no clear agenda. They are talking about what they can expect to take to Hong Kong, said one European diplomat ahead of Tuesdays talks between the European Union, the United States, Japan, Brazil and India. Unless Hong Kong provides progress, the round will have little chance of meeting its final deadline of end-2006/early 2007 because wrapping up negotiations takes months of work even after a blueprint, with all the politically difficult bargains, has been agreed.

Although the five do not speak for the full WTO membership, they represent a wide range of trading interests and their views could help Lamy to draw up a draft declaration for the Hong Kong ministerial meeting.