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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 December, 2003, 08:55 GMT
WTO talks progress 'in New Year'

Andrew Walker
BBC World Service economics correspondent in Geneva

Perez del Castillo
Perez del Castillo: Believes sense of urgency is needed

The diplomat given the job of getting World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations back in gear is not convinced they can be completed on time.

Carlos Perez del Castillo, Chairman of the WTO's General Council, said in a BBC interview: "Personally I have my doubts that it can all be done by 2004 to be very honest."

He was speaking after the first day of a meeting that was supposed to do what is necessary to ensure the negotiations are finished successfully and on time.

Mr Perez del Castillo says the members are still talking about the original target date for completion. But most trade analysts do not think it can be done.

Low-key discussions

The negotiation - the Round as it's known in WTO-speak - was launched two years ago at a ministers' meeting in Doha in Qatar.

The subsequent ministerial conference in Cancun in Mexico was intended to be a mid-term review.

In fact it ended in failure. Mr Perez del Castillo has been trying to repair the damage.

He cancelled formal negotiating groups and held low-key discussions to find a way forward. Now he says there has been progress.

Protest banner at the Cancun WTO meeting
Divisions wrecked the last ministerial summit in Cancun

Member countries told him they want to finish the round on time and are committed to the WTO as a way of moving ahead with freer trade.

Mr Perez del Castillo seems to believe them. He says the problems in the negotiations and ways of solving them are now clearer.

And he plans to restart the negotiating groups in the New Year - probably in February.

But he says the governments have not shown enough flexibility. There is a lack of the political will to make compromises.

He says the sense of urgency that was present after Cancun seems to have been diluted.

Unless that sense of urgency returns, he says "we are likely to unravel the good work that has been done so far".

US elections

One thing that seems to be a little clearer than immediately after Cancun is the fate of two new issues that were very contentious - whether there should new rules on how governments treat foreign investors and on competition policy.

The European Union, Japan and South Korea wanted new rules. The developing countries did not.

Mr Perez del Castillo said these will not be part of the Round as such - although they could re-appear in some other context.

The difficulty for finishing the talks next year is aggravated by elections.

Politicians are more reluctant to make concessions that might alienate support at home if an election looms, as it does in the United States and some other countries.

A missed deadline would be a setback. But then again in trade talks it would hardly be the first time.

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