BALI, Indonesia - Top trade officials began talks Tuesday that will either produce an eleventh hour deal that could boost the global economy by $1 trillion or possibly spell the end of the World Trade Organization's relevance as a forum for negotiations.
After more than a decade of inertia in WTO talks, negotiators are close to a slimmed-down deal but there is no finished document for the dozens of trade ministers attending a summit on the Indonesia resort island of Bali to sign. So close to an agreement, some have been urging the trade ministers to take the unusual step of completing the negotiations themselves.
An agreement on simplifying customs procedures could help revive the WTO's broader Doha Round of trade negotiations, sometimes known as the development round because of sweeping changes in regulations, taxes and subsidies that would benefit low income countries. Still, WTO ministerial summits are designed for enshrining done deals, not technical negotiations, so producing an agreement at a four-day conference would be unprecedented.
"Even though still possible, the chances of reaching a deal are rather slim," said Matthias Helble, a global trade expert at the Asian Development Bank Institute and former WTO adviser.
The goal of the Doha Round, so called because it was launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, is to create unified rules for the 159 member economies of the WTO in myriad areas: lowering import taxes on hundreds of goods, limiting market-distorting subsidies for farm produce and creating one standard for customs procedures that will make it easier for goods to move across borders.
The idea is that if all countries play by the same trade rules, then all countries, rich or poor, will benefit. With fewer trade barriers, goods and services of all types would be more affordable, creating more employment and business opportunities. The WTO estimates that easing customs barriers would increase total world trade to $23 trillion from its current estimate of $22 trillion.
Critics of the WTO rules, though, say they may hinder countries from setting their own priorities in environmental protection, worker rights, food security and other areas. And they say sudden reductions in import tariffs can wipe out industries, causing job losses in rich and poor countries.
"We know it is not an easy task," said Brazil's foreign minister Luiz Alberto Rieguero Machado. "But we are now here, and we are here to do something," he said. "We are willing to do our best effort to leave Bali with an adopted package."