U.S. trade envoy says progress on trade deal still possible at WTO summit

America's top trade envoy says it's unlikely negotiators will settle a deadlock centering on farm subsidies at a crucial world trade summit this month. But U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman thinks it's still possible to make progress toward an overall trade deal at the gathering of 148 World Trade Organization countries in Hong Kong on Dec. 13-18.

Portman also said the United States is working hard to avoid a watered-down agreement, which would harm the developing countries the summit is meant to help lift out of poverty. The Hong Kong meeting originally was meant to set a framework for cutting obstacles to world trade in agriculture, services and industrial goods. That framework would then guide negotiators as they completed a trade deal by the end of 2006.

While a final framework probably won't be settled, Portman said, WTO negotiators still could make Hong Kong a success by using the meeting to take stock of where they are in the talks and by setting goals on what negotiators must do next year to agree.

Portman spoke with reporters Thursday before traveling to Geneva to meet with trade representatives from India, Brazil, the European Union and Japan _ evidence, he said, of the U.S. determination to settle the disputes hampering an overall WTO deal. Negotiators from rich countries are stalled on the question of agriculture, specifically how deeply they should cut farm subsidies and high import tariffs that hurt poor countries.

The United States says Europe's policies of generously subsidizing its farmers are the major hurdle in the talks. EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said Wednesday that if other negotiators "continue merely to ask for more from Europe, without paying into the pot themselves, they _ not we _ risk destroying" the current round of negotiations, the AP reported.

Portman said Thursday the EU was blaming poorer countries, many of which already enjoy preferential access to certain markets in the EU and United States, for its inability to liberalize farm trade rules. A.M.

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