It appears unlikely that the World Trade Organization will be able to call a ministerial this year aimed at crafting a new global agreement.
Director-General Pascal Lamy had hoped to gather top trade negotiators in Geneva Dec. 13 to overcome issues blocking a deal.
But those plans were scuttled today at a meeting of officials at WTO headquarters in Geneva. There was no word on whether trade ministers would meet at all before Dec. 31.
There have been widespread concerns that Lamy was pushing a meeting that was unlikely to succeed. Revised negotiating drafts released this weekend drew criticism from the body's 153 members over the same issues that doomed a nine-day summit in July.
But hopes for a deal were rekindled in November amid the deepening global financial crisis as 20 industrialized and emerging economies in Washington urged a loosening of trade restrictions in farm products and industrial goods by the end of the year.
"That was a political statement," Nestor Stancarelli, Argentina's chief trade negotiator, told Associated Press. "If you have to move dates, it's not so serious."
Stancarelli and Indian Ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia said Lamy was now considering whether to call ministers to Geneva for a three-day meeting starting Dec. 17 despite wide differences among members.
The United States and China disagree over Washington's demand for sharp tariff cuts in global chemicals trade, while the U.S. fends off attacks on the hundreds of millions of dollars in cotton subsidies it hands to growers each year.
Officials said calling a ministerial meeting would be pointless before Lamy assesses the chances of a breakthough by year's end.
John Engler, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that the revised texts "shows that the gaps in the industrial trade negotiations have not been closed. The new text does not show that countries have moved in the direction of greater ambition, and considerably more work is needed."
Engler's organization has been insisting that Brazil, China, and India participate in major sector-by-sector agreements to eliminate tariffs in industrial machinery, chemicals, and electronics.
"We do not believe a ministerial meeting should be called until it is clear that a greater consensus exists than is now the case," Engler said.