GENEVA – Negotiators at the World Trade Organization are forging ahead with work to agree a global trade deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars but time is running out before the December deadline, the new head of the WTO said on Friday.
Roberto Azevedo, who took the helm of the WTO at the start of this month, said in a statement that "the dynamic has changed profoundly" in the past week, marking a turnaround from increasingly despondent noises earlier in the summer.
"Delegations are no longer talking past each other but are seriously engaged in finding compromises on the issues that divide them," Azevedo said.
The race to agree a deal at a ministerial conference in Bali at the end of the year is not only a opportunity to slash the cost of shipping goods around the world, it also represents what many experts see as the last chance to restore confidence in the WTO's ability to reform global trade rules.
Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters in Geneva that the contours of a deal were clear, but it remained to be seen if the WTO could deliver.
"There's no doubt that there's kind of a breath of fresh air with Mr Azevedo taking over," he said.
"They're actually negotiating which is just amazing. They haven't really negotiated in quite some time around here, so you can really sense the uptick in activity."
If there is no deal in Bali, the risk for the WTO is that major trading powers, which are already spending much more energy on bilateral deals than on the push for a global agreement, would give up for good.
Some experts say that could foster the growth of rival trading blocs and deepen divisions, the opposite of what the WTO was meant to achieve.
Azevedo will update the WTO's 159 members on negotiating progress on Monday.
He stressed in Friday's statement there was still much to do.
"Time is not our friend and we should not underestimate the challenges ahead with positions still far apart on a number of the key negotiating issues."
The Bali deal is a small subset of the wide-ranging Doha round of trade talks that began 12 years ago and turned out to be too ambitious. The WTO repeatedly failed to clinch a deal before finally agreeing it had reached an "impasse" in 2011, at which point it started aiming for a much smaller package.
The largest part of the proposed Bali deal would be trade facilitation - standardising customs rules and procedures to speed up trade and slash costs.
At one point the WTO put the potential benefit to the world economy at $1 trillion, but most estimates put the value of trade facilitation in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The other elements of Bali would be special treatment for the poorest economies and a limited reform of the rules on agricultural trade. (Editing by David Cowell)