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Good grief! The WTO talks hit another impasse

If you read Peanuts, you know the drill. Lucy tees up the ball and promises Charlie Brown that this time he really will be able to kick it. Charlie hitches up his shorts, draws back his leg and, at the last moment, Lucy pulls the ball away.

The ongoing efforts to achieve a Doha Round agreement are beginning to remind me of the comic strip. The European Union, Brazil, India and other developing countries ask for more U.S. concessions, but they keep pulling the ball away.

U.S. trade officials and a contingent of U.S. farm and commodity organization leaders traveled to the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland, June 29, for another meeting aimed at trying to find a way to conclude the talks.

Over the five years since this latest round began in Doha, Qatar, the U.S. negotiating team has developed a jaundiced view of such meetings. But they and most of the farm group representatives were hopeful some progress might be made.

“We came to Geneva this week seeking a breakthrough to keep the Doha negotiations moving forward by breaking the impasse in agriculture and industrial market access,” said Susan Schwab, the U.S. trade representative. “The big task this week has been to deliver on the Doha promise to substantially improve market access.”

Two days later, she and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns were saying the negotiations had hit another impasse, “but that they remained committed to an ambitious, robust round.”

Some say the United States should just say no to the current negotiations. The U.S. proposal for a 60-percent cut in domestic support is simply too much for farmers without a corresponding gain in market access in the European Union and the developing countries — or the G-20.

“I'm afraid that we might not like the deal that we could get now,” said one analyst. “And I don't believe the agreement we might get now would be good for the developing countries who think that protectionism means development.”

Most observers believe WTO members must reach agreement on major issues by the end of July to give countries the remainder of the year to list changes they will make in their farm programs. That would mean Congress could consider the agreement before President Bush's trade promotion authority expires in July.

Members of Congress continue to demand the other side meet U.S. negotiators half-way. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who chairs the Finance Committee that will get first shot at a Doha agreement, said he was “fed up” with other countries demanding the United States give more ground without offering compromises themselves.

A commodity organization staffer who has attended previous WTO meetings in Geneva said that may be the strategy adopted by the EU, Japan and others. “I think a lot of the other countries believe the United States will step in at the last minute and rescue the round,” he said.

Not if the United States takes its ball and goes home.

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