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Portman says Doha Round talks still have a chance

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman says he still believes the WTO can successfully complete the Doha Development Round, but only if its members “work together to get that done.”

Portman was in Geneva, Switzerland, with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Deputy USTR Susan Schwab for what might be Portman's last trip as the chief U.S. trade negotiator. (Portman has been nominated to become director of the Office of Management and Budget.)

But he didn't sound like a lame duck, joking with reporters during a teleconference that he and Schwab, who has been nominated to replace him, were doubling up on the other trade ministers at the WTO.

“This is a crucial time,” he said. “I think it was very important that we were here this week, given the missed deadline on April 30. We came to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to do everything in our power to keep these talks on track to be sure that we end up with a successful conclusion.”

He took a couple of swipes at the European Union, which most say has become the biggest stumbling block to a new trade agreement (if you discount the Congress, according to others.)

Portman said he's optimistic about the Doha Round because other trade ministers have begun to get on the U.S. bandwagon for increased market access in the EU, Japan and other high-tariff countries. “I was struck by those who have told me their primary concern is market access, including the Africa group and others who believe market openings create economic opportunity.”

He reminded reporters that seven months ago the United States tried to revive the Doha talks by offering to reduce its farm subsidies by 60 percent. “Members have mentioned this week that it was great to see the new energy and enthusiasm after that October presentation.

“But, frankly, that energy has dissipated as matching offers have not come forward, particularly in market access. Some have said the U.S. proposal isn't realistic, that we're asking for too much. I don't think that is true.”

Portman said most observers expected the United States to offer to reduce its “amber box” payments by 50 percent to 55 percent. “But, after careful consultation with Congress, the White House and constituent groups such as commodity organizations, we did 60 percent. That's substantial, and it takes away not just checks to farmers, but our ability to continue with the same farm programs.

“It requires us to reform our farm programs, and I can say this without fear of being hit by my colleague to my right (Johanns) because he's said the same thing in public testimony in the U.S. Congress.”

Johanns agreed farm program “reforms” would be required, “but in return we will gain greater market access and our farmers and ranchers will have the ability to compete on a worldwide basis.”

Maybe so. But more farm groups are wondering if the gains will be worth the price.

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