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INTERVIEW-U.S. sees hurdles on WTO road to Bali ministerial

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

* WTO members aim for "trade facilitation" deal in December

* U.S. envoy says Indian subsidy proposal "extremely worrisome"

* Talks on technology, services trade, gathering steam in Geneva

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON, March 7 (Reuters) - The United States is concerned that World Trade Organization talks to help developing countries boost trade by removing customs barriers could fail because negotiators are stuck on several issues.

"We're very worried about the current pace of work in Geneva," U.S. Ambassador to the WTO Michael Punke said in an interview on Wednesday, referring to discussions on a "trade facilitation" package that WTO members hope to reach in December in Bali at their ninth ministerial meeting.

"What trade facilitation does in a very mundane but vital way is remove red tape" that impedes trade, Punke said.

While some of the issues are complicated, negotiators are hung up on even some simple ideas, like a proposal to require countries to put their customs forms on the Internet so they can be easily downloaded by businesses, he said.

"As basic as that is, it is something that countries have not been willing to agree to, and it's an example of the type of things that we're worried about," Punke said.

WTO members in 2001 launched the Doha round of world trade talks with the goal of helping poor countries by tearing down barriers to trade in agriculture, manufacturing and services.

A trade facilitation deal 12 years later would represent just a sliver of the original grand scheme, which has proven too difficult for countries to hammer out.

Punke said that one thing complicating the talks on the "Bali package" was an "an extremely worrisome" proposal from India that would allow emerging economies to provide their farmers virtually unlimited agricultural subsidies.

"What the Indians have said is they won't agree to a trade facilitation agreement unless something is agreed to on its proposal. What the U.S. and others have said is we're willing to look at the issue that has been raised by India, but the proposal as it's currently written is a non-starter."

SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET

In contrast to the troubled trade facilitation talks, "there is incredible energy and optimism" in two other negotiations in Geneva among a subset of WTO members, Punke said.

One initiative is aimed at expanding the WTO's Information Technology Agreement by eliminating duties on additional goods among the pact's current 70 members, which account for about 97 percent of international information-technology trade.

U.S. industry is hoping for an agreement on an expanded list that includes currently uncovered items, such as flat-screen panels and GPS devices, as early as July.

After another round of meetings last week, "we feel very good about where the list is at right now," Punke said.

A deal by the end of July was "logistically possible," but depended on countries mustering the political will to make the tough final choices on products, he said.

The United States, the 27-nation European Union and 19 other WTO members could also formally begin talks in May or June on an "International Services Agreement" to remove barriers to trade and investment in sectors ranging from banking to telecommunications.

"We're now a couple of months away from being formally engaged in a very important negotiation with 21 participating (members), which is exciting," Punke said. "I think that will happen on a rolling basis as individual countries are prepared to table offers, or parts of offers." (Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130307/interview-us-sees-hurdles-wto-road-bali-ministerial