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Ministers from five key World Trade Organization members moved to dampen expectations before a major trade summit in Hong Kong next month, acknowledging that they will likely not reach the goals set for the meeting.
"There were wide disagreements," Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath told reporters at the end of a meeting he chaired Monday with the trade chiefs of the United States, the European Union, Brazil and Japan.
Ministers are scrambling to reach tentative agreement on issues such as agriculture and access for manufactured goods to the international market before the 148 WTO members meet in Hong Kong from Dec. 13-18. That meeting is supposed to approve a detailed framework for a global trade treaty - but negotiators haven't even been able to produce a draft agreement yet.
"It isn't that Hong Kong is going to be a failure. We are tempering expectations based upon the timing and the intricacy," said Nath.
With only weeks to go before the Hong Kong meeting, ministers seemed to be trying to avoid the kind of crushing disaster they faced at the last WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003. That meeting collapsed in disarray and acrimony, paralyzing the global trade body for months.
The ministers stressed that they were not lowering their aims for the overall agreement - known as the Doha Round, for the Qatari capital where it was launched in 2001 - but it might take longer to get there.
"We will not lower the level of ambition of the round. If necessary we may lower the level of expectation for Hong Kong," said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.
Negotiators from the five countries now travel to the WTO headquarters in Geneva, where on Tuesday they will share their discussions with a larger group of ministers.
US Trade Representative Rob Portman said he was pleased to note that Monday's meeting didn't focus entirely on agriculture - as previous ones have done - but discussed other issues such as market access for manufactured goods and opening up service industries to international trade.
"These other issues are quite important to the success of the round," he said.
The United States and the European Union, under heavy pressure from developing countries to reduce farm subsidies and cut tariffs on agricultural products, have insisted that in turn they must see concessions from poorer nations on goods and services.
"We need to make progress in other areas. We need to address the whole of the agenda if we are to make the progress we want to do," said EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.
India is less convinced, insisting that the first emphasis must be on agriculture - its major trade sector - and particularly in ensuring that poor nations get the help they need to increase their economies and ensure development.
The treaty, when completed, would be binding on all WTO members, which is why it provokes such high emotion among negotiators. The round is already well behind its original December 2004 deadline.
"This is a critical week for these negotiations, there's no two ways about that," said Keith Rockwell, spokesman for WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy.