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Another missed deadline for WTO, but will it matter?

Agriculture.com Staff 04/20/2006 @ 1:26pm

After about a day and a half of meeting with ag trade ministers and officials from about a dozen nations, U.S. Representative Jerry Moran (R-KS) is almost certain that an April 30 deadline for more agreements in World Trade Organization negotiations will be fruitless.

"It's clear to me that the April 30 deadline will come and go without significant agreement," Moran told reporters Thursday in a telephone call from Geneva, Switzerland, the headquarters of the WTO.

Last fall, the U.S. offered to make sharp cuts in farm program subsidies if the European Union would agree to cut tariffs on ag imports. Talks in Hong Kong in December ended with a broad agreement to phase out export subsidies, but no progress on the U.S. interest in more "market access."

Moran, who heads the House Agriculture subcommittee in charge of writing commodity programs in the next farm bill, said he made it clear to trade representatives from the European Commission, Brazil, Africa and elsewhere that Congress won't approve a new WTO agreement that would require big program cuts without something in return.

"There has to be a correspondingly significant improvement in our ability to sell agricultural products around the world," Moran said.

Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), who went with Moran to Geneva, said that some progress had been made on an agreement to changing food aid, but that the U.S. will resist EU demands to change all food aid from commodities to monetary aid.

But almost not progress has been made on the EU's level of cuts to tariffs, which U.S. negotiators consider inadequate.

Moran said members of Congress are skeptical of EU positions on tariffs after previous trade agreements that promised to open up more trade to Europe failed to live up to expectations. A ban on beef raised with hormones is one example, he said.

Moran said he didn't hear any complaints about the Bush Administration moving U.S. Trade Ambassador Rob Portman into the White House to head the Office of Management and Budget.

"There is a general sentiment, a sadness about Ambassador Portman's departure," Moran said.

On Tuesday, when President Bush announced his appointment of Portman to head OMB, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican head of the Senate Finance Committee, was more blunt.

"I just think it's bad news as far as the Doha Round is concerned," Grassley said.

Portman, a former Congressman from Ohio, is well liked by members of both parties in Washington and respected by trade negotiators around the world. Grassley added that Susan Schwab, the Bush Administration's choice to succeed Portman, is well qualifited. The deputy U.S. trade representative has years of experience working in trade negotiations and in Congress, but there are "probably a lot of personalities on the world wide scene that she has to get acquainted with," Grassley said.

Some newspaper reports from Canada, Australia, Britain and the U.S. have taken Portman's transfer to the White House as a signal that the Bush administration may have given up on progress in the Doha Round. But Rosemarie Watkins, a trade specialist with American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington sees Schwab as well qualified to carry on the negotiations.

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