By  on April 4, 2006

WASHINGTON — House Ways and Means committee chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.) threw cold water Monday on the global round of trade talks, declaring that the U.S. and European Union have reached "irreconcilable differences" on trade.

Thomas, who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year after more than 25 years, urged the Bush administration not to just "walk away" from the World Trade Organization-sponsored talks, but to turn its focus to bilateral trade deals, notably with poor countries. During a speech at the American Enter­prise Institute, he said efforts to reach an ambitious global treaty to reduce tariffs had all but failed and warned that any agreement would be severely scaled back.

"When you have irreconcilable differences, sometimes the best thing to do is just to part ways," said Thomas. "In my opinion, the U.S. should announce separation from the European Union and stop being the enabler. For anyone hoping that somehow there is going to be a significant conclusion to the Doha Round, my apologies."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman's office said in a statement: "The U.S. believes a successful Doha Round will produce tremendous benefits for global economic growth and poverty reduction. That is why the United States will keep pushing for a strong result, but we are clearly disappointed with the lack of urgency and political will shown by some of our trading partners."

Thomas said if a global treaty is not reached, the U.S. could pursue a strategy of giving duty-free preferences to least-developed countries if they abide by at least two fundamental WTO standards: basic, science-based rules on how governments apply food safety and animal and plant health measures, as well as standards on intellectual property rights.

He said the U.S. could use expiring preference programs, such as the African Growth & Opportunity Act and Generalized System of Preferences, as leverage in negotiations with developing countries.

"I think he's enunciating a tone of seriousness about the state of the round and that the hidden agenda here is if we don't settle these problems, a year from now all of the desire and push isn't going to amount to anything because of bigger influences [the expiration in the U.S. of trade promotion authority] that will come to bear," said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.Tantillo called Thomas' proposal of extending preferential treatment to least-developed countries in the absence of a Doha deal "a horrendous approach, basically giving benefits of the deal up front, prior to securing any commitments or obligations in return."

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, said: "I'm not prepared to say things are dead" in Doha. Autor speculated that Thomas could be trying a "little reverse psychology" on U.S. negotiators and "trying to focus the attention of folks in Doha negotiations and say they are seriously at risk of flushing the entire round down the toilet."

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