Brussels/Washington, 18 September A new world trade deal is within reach if countries have the political will to achieve it, top US and EU trade officials said today.

“The Doha negotiations have made more progress than people realize," EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said on 17 September in remarks prepared for a speech in New York.

“While everybody has said that the talks are failing, they have in fact been moving forward and we nearly have a deal on the key issues," Mandelson said.

Negotiators launched the current round of world trade talks nearly six years ago in Doha, Qatar with the aim of tearing down barriers to international trade, boosting the global economy and helping poor countries export more.

But the talks have missed several deadlines as countries wrangled on sensitive issues such as farm trade and tariffs on industrial goods imports. They risk further years of delay without a breakthrough soon.

Many experts see the next month or two as critical for negotiators seeking to finetune draft texts on agriculture and industrial goods released in July. They believe time is of the essence because the U.S. presidential election next will likely stall a deal at least until after a new U.S. president takes office in early 2009.

Mandelson urged countries to look beyond the immediate impacts of a deal and consider the need to shore up the global trading system, especially after recent financial market turbulence has clouded the global economic outlook.

“We focus on a few tonnes of poultry imports here, or a couple of billion farm subsidies there or half a point off an automotive tariff somewhere else," he said.

“But every bit as important is topping up economic confidence and strengthening the rules that bind world trade relationships," Mandelson said.

“A Doha success would mean making current levels of openness largely irreversible. Doha is like a ratchet in the global economic machine that will stop it sliding backwards."

Next four to six weeks key

In a separate speech in Washington, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab agreed negotiators have made a lot of progress “beneath the surface in the past year."

But she said the key to reaching a deal was whether advanced developing countries would open their markets in exchange for rich country farm subsidy and tariff cuts.

“We’re going to know in the next four to six weeks how that’s going to play out," Schwab said in a speech at the US Chamber of Commerce.

Brazil, India, South Africa and other developing nations complained in July that proposed tariff cuts in the draft “non-agricultural market access," or industrial goods, text were too onerous and inconsistent with development goals.

Argentina and Venezuela went even further and said they would not accept the draft text as a basis for talks.

“Unfortunately, all it takes is for one or a handful of countries to kill the Doha round," Schwab said.

“So the question we’re dealing with in Geneva is will a handful of countries that made very negative noises in July ... derail the Doha process or will they recognize that we all need to come together," Schwab said.

The US is prepared to do its part on cutting farm subsidies and tariffs if advanced developing countries make meaningful concessions, she said.

Negotiators are currently working in Geneva on what could be the next-to-last draft text of deal, but that requires sacrifice from more than the US she said. REUTERS