U.S., Trade Allies Push for International Services Talks

By | September 20, 2012

A proposed international agreement to reduce barriers to trade in service sectors ranging from banking to telecommunications [including insurance] would give the global economy a much-needed boost, top trade officials said on Wednesday.

“This is a huge opportunity to spur economic prosperity and job growth,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a speech at a conference of global companies eager for new markets to sell their services.

With the nearly 11-year-old Doha round of world trade talks all but officially dead, the United States and 19 other members of the World Trade Organization have been exploring the idea of negotiating an international services agreement.

“It is our collective plea to the world to take the open shot,” Kirk said, using a basketball analogy to argue for countries to launch talks aimed at quickly reaching a high-quality pact. “We need to put points on the board.”

Major emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India have been cool to the idea. But global services companies want the 20 members, which include the 27-nation European Union and other developed and developing countries, to press ahead.

“I think the important thing is just to get something moving,” New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said, expressing optimism that “other important countries” could be brought into the negotiations once they start.

Mexico’s Ambassador to the WTO Fernando De Mateo said negotiators should aim for a pact within 12 months, once talks start. Other negotiators also expressed the desire for a speedy negotiation.

Michael Punke, U.S. ambassador to the WTO, said the 20 countries would meet again in Geneva in early October to consider the next steps.

“I think we should skip the ritual dance and dive right in,” said Punke, who also expressed hope that more WTO members would join in.

Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast said negotiators should shoot for an ambitious agreement that sets a high-standard of market openness without “constantly keeping our eyes on the emerging economies” and worrying if they can match the commitments.

South Korean Trade Minister Taeho Bark and several other speakers said the agreement should be crafted in way that its commitments can eventually be “multilateralized” among all WTO members.

A number of negotiators said the pact could be forged by consolidating the most ambitious services chapters of existing free trade agreements, and complementing that with new market-opening commitments.

Kirk said the United States favored a “negative list” to the talks, meaning the pact would cover all services sectors unless they are specifically excluded. Others favor a “positive” list, which liberalizes only those sectors specifically mentioned.

Punke and senior EU trade official Joao Machado said a compromise on that issue was likely, with countries using a “hybrid” approach.

“The imperative for us is to get this train rolling down the tracks,” while keeping open the possibility for Brazil, India, China and other countries to join, Kirk said.

“This is a train with nothing but first-class service. So if you get on late, you’re not going to have to get on in the back with the cows and the pigs … This is a Eurostar,” Kirk said.

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