A long-awaited meeting of ministers to agree on the outlines of a new global trade deal is likely to take place by the end of May, the head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) said on Thursday.
The comments by WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy confirmed that the meeting, originally proposed for late March or early April, would be delayed because of longer-than-expected negotiations on the technical aspects of the deal.
But they added to growing hopes that an outline deal in the Doha round, launched in late 2001 to boost the world economy and help poor countries export more, could be done soon.
"I would be surprised if I needed the ministers in town before the end of April," WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told Reuters. "But I wouldn't be surprised if the meeting happened by the end of May."
Lamy, speaking on the sidelines of a conference of African Union trade and finance ministers in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said negotiations in Geneva were moving "day to day, night to night".
WRANGLING OVER DETAILS
Major food exporting and importing countries are wrangling in Geneva over the details of a scheme to shield politically sensitive farm products from the full force of tariff cuts.
That is delaying progress on agricultural talks which are the key to the round because of their importance for developing countries.
A deal is likely to involve rich countries such as the United States and European Union opening their markets for agricultural produce by cutting tariffs and subsidies, while poor countries such as India and Brazil cut industrial tariffs and liberalise services.
That would give rich nations greater access to developing country markets and boost South-South trade. Lamy said a deal was still possible before the end of the year.
WTO members are keen to conclude the round by the end of 2008, while George W Bush, whose administration has repeatedly committed itself to a deal, is still US President.
But that means ministers must agree the political outlines of an accord in the next few weeks to allow negotiators the necessary half a year or so to flesh out the details.
Earlier the European Union's top trade negotiator Peter Mandelson said he hoped trading nations could reach broad agreement on a trade deal over the next month and a detailed accord in the following six to eight months.
Mandelson said in Berlin he was more confident now than he had been previously that a deal could be done.
Last week Bush said the United States was ready to make serious concessions in agriculture.
And World Bank President Robert Zoellick, a former chief US negotiator, said it was "now or never" to reach an accord and a good deal was on the table. (Reuters)
Doha trade talks may happen in May: WTO chief