British Prime Minister David Cameron called the drive to finish the Doha round of world trade talks a failure and said on Thursday the European Union should instead negotiate free trade deals with the United States and Africa.
Cameron's comments, to be made in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, mark a break with the orthodox position of most world leaders who have for years called for a final push to conclude the complex set of global trade negotiations launched in the Qatari capital Doha in 2001.
Instead of trying to get every country to agree, Cameron said the 27-nation EU should push forward with bilateral deals. He suggested a "coalition of the willing" -- countries that wanted to do an ambitious trade deal -- could forge ahead alone.
"Last year, at this very forum, world leaders called for an all-out effort to conclude the Doha round in 2011. We said it was the make-or-break year. It was. And we have to be frank about it. It didn't work," Cameron will say, according to excerpts of his speech released in advance by his office.
"But let's not give up on free trade. Let's step forward with a new and ambitious set of ideas to take trade forwards."
Cameron's impatience with the marathon Doha talks reflects his wish to give a boost to Britain and Europe's sagging economies that more trade could bring. He has been trying to spur British trade with powerful emerging markets.
Official data released on Wednesday showed Britain's economy shrank by 0.2 percent in the last three months of 2011, complicating Cameron's hopes of boosting growth while slashing Britain's big budget deficit.
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The Doha talks were intended to help poor countries prosper through trade and boost the world economy by hundreds of billions of dollars. But trading powers clashed over proposals to cut tariffs and subsidies on goods from food to chemicals.
Nevertheless, world trade ministers meeting in Geneva last month were not prepared to declare the talks dead.
Cameron urged the EU to wrap up talks on free trade agreements with India, Canada and Singapore by the end of this year. "Completing these could add 90 billion euros ($117 bn, Dhs429.64bn) to EU gross domestic product," he will say.
"Let's also look at options for agreement between the EU and the US, where a deal could have a bigger impact than all of the other agreements put together."
Negotiating a US-EU free trade agreement is a long-held British dream. The then EU Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan, now a trade adviser to Cameron, suggested a similar idea in 1998 but it was shot down by France which feared the EU could be forced into concessions on farm trade.
Cameron said his proposals did not mean turning his back on international cooperation. "We need the continued work of the World Trade Organisation to prevent any collapse back to protectionism," he said.
"But it does mean going forwards, perhaps with a coalition of the willing. This would mean countries who want to, could forge ahead with more ambitious deals of their own," he said.
He pointed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade pact covering nine countries in the Asia Pacific region.
"Why not an ambitious deal between Europe and Africa?" he said.
In a clear reference to the euro zone debt crisis, he said it was time for European leaders to "show the leadership our people are demanding. Tinkering here and there and hoping we'll drift to a solution simply won't cut it any more.
"This is a time for boldness, not caution."