Canada's Trade Minister is preparing a strategy aimed at salvaging something from the Doha Round of global trade talks, confronting a growing sentiment that negotiations should be abandoned because no consensus has been achieved after 10 years of trying.
"Canada certainly isn't going to give up on the Doha Round," Ed Fast said in an interview. "We are developing a number of proposals for consideration in December when we meet next in Geneva and I know a number of our other trading partners are doing the same."
Mr. Fast declined to be more specific. The Geneva meeting to which he referred is the next gathering of trade ministers from the 153 members of the World Trade Organization, which is scheduled for Dec. 15-17. The gathering is shaping up as a last-ditch attempt to make something of trade talks that began at a similar gathering in Doha, Qatar, in November, 2001.
"We are hoping that those proposals will perhaps move us forward, perhaps in a new way," Mr. Fast said late Monday after a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Ron Kirk. "The key thing is to ensure the WTO remains an effective and vibrant mechanism under which global trade can take place."
Once heralded as an opportunity to lift millions of people out of poverty by tearing down barriers to trade, the talks have bogged down in recent years because the United States has refused to give ground on agriculture subsidies, while countries such as Brazil, China and India stand firm on limits to imports.
There has been little discernible movement since 2008. In 2009, the leaders of the Group of 20 major economies called for a conclusion of the Doha Round by the end of 2010. All hope for a major change in WTO rules that would broadly reduce trade barriers has been abandoned. And with presidential elections in the U.S., France and Germany next year, most analysts say any consolation prize will have to be won over the next few months or put off until 2013 or later.
"Odds for anything that would enjoy consensus for a successful conclusion of the Doha Round are pretty limited," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Among the countries that Canada is joining in an 11th-hour push on Doha is Australia, whose trade minister last month called on WTO members to adopt a new approach to trade talks. According to Inside U.S. Trade, an industry publication, Craig Ferguson said countries should seek quick implementation on the handful of issues on which they agree, and then reset negotiations to broaden the agenda.
Publicly, the Australian proposals remain abstract. But issues on which WTO members might find agreement include fish subsidies and increased access for imports from the poorest countries, Mr. Alden said. Broader topics that are missing from the Doha agenda but that have gained importance over the decade since talks commenced include climate change and trade in services.
Mr. Fast, the member of Parliament for Abbotsford, B.C., was making his first visit to Washington since being drafted from the backbenches to become trade minister last May, and was cautious in his public comments. He told a news conference only that he and Mr. Kirk discussed a "wide range of issues," refusing multiple requests that he be more specific. Mr. Fast said he had scheduled meetings with U.S. lawmakers, but declined to say which ones.
As Doha negotiations have dragged on, more and more countries have sought bilateral trade agreements. The Canadian government has been among the more aggressive pursuing this strategy, identifying tracts with the European Union and India as national priorities.
The WTO "is feeling tremendous strain from the weight of regional trade arrangements," which threaten to undermine confidence in the organization's ability to enforce trade rules, said John Curtis, an adjunct professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and a former chief economist at Canada's Trade Department.
Rhetorically, Canada has been supportive of the WTO, "but it's not been particularly active," Prof. Curtis said.
Mr. Fast insisted that supporting the WTO remains Canada's top trade priority. "We have focused very much on the WTO process," he said in the interview. "That said, that process is going very slowly. In the meantime, we have no choice but to stand up for the interests of Canadians and look for new opportunities for Canadian businesses to grow and thrive."