Long-running talks to open up world trade face a crucial few weeks, but a deal can be done by the end of the year if major trading powers really want it, a top US trade official said on Saturday.
US Trade Representative Susan Schwab told Reuters the United States was among several key players which were pushing for a deal, but she feared that some countries were still looking for excuses to stall.
The Doha round of talks, launched in late 2001, have been deadlocked for years over differences among rich and poor countries over cutting farm and industrial tariffs and subsidies.
But Schwab said negotiators had succeeded in narrowing many of the gaps in the complex technical issues underlying world trade in the past eight months. "It's doable. The next couple of weeks and months will be decisive in terms of whether we're able to pull it off or not," Schwab said in an interview.
Trade ministers from several countries have held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos this week.
They are due to gather for a lunch on Saturday with World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Pascal Lamy at which they will discuss the chances of getting a breakthrough in the Doha round.
"President (George W.) Bush is fully committed to a successful Doha round outcome in 2008," Schwab said.
"The talks here in Davos this week could prove significant in terms of regaining momentum. There is a sense of urgency about what is going on in the world economy. We're going to be quietly optimistic," she said.
Schwab's comments echoed a series of statements from trade policymakers. On Friday Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, said he sensed there was a positive mood to try to complete the deal, with the financial crisis adding urgency.
Brazil, an emerging agricultural superpower, is one of the leaders of developing countries in the talks.
Schwab said there has been progress on both industry and agriculture, whose importance to developing countries makes it central to the talks.
In a sign of progress, negotiators are now discussing ranges of tariffs for industrial goods, after the talks broke down in June last year over market access for manufacturers, even if gaps remain wide on industry, she said.
Schwab said she was concerned that talks on opening up trade in services, from banking to express delivery of packages, was lagging the other sectors.
"If you think about product life-cycles and supply chains, the way business is really done, the role of services at every step of the way is absolutely crucial," she said. "For developing -- and developed -- countries to enhance their competitiveness the key often lies in the services sector."
Schwab dismissed concerns that the trade talks could be sidelined by the campaign for November's U.S. election.
But with opinion polls indicating diminishing support for free trade in the United States, she said American businesses needed to do more to educate employees about the critical importance of trade for the US economy.
"When I ask corporate chief executives 'Do your employees realise the extent to which their jobs and their paychecks depend on free and fair trade?' you'd be amazed at how many aren't sure," she said. (Reuters)