Byline: Kristi Ellis

WASHINGTON — In an effort to reinvigorate the Free Trade Area of the Americas pact, trade ministers from 34 Western Hemisphere countries are expected to take negotiations to the next stage at a high-level meeting in Buenos Aires today.
The meeting will set the tone for the Bush Administration’s first major trade initiative and inject major political support at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec April 20-22.
“This will certainly be a scene setter,” said a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “They will probably focus on moving the framework along and talk about when they expect to conclude negotiations.”
Completion of the FTAA is a Bush priority. The groundwork for an agreement was laid by the Clinton administration and Bush must now tackle the most important details, such as tariff phaseouts by product category. He faces a major roadblock with the U.S. Congress, however, if it refuses to grant the administration fast-track negotiating authority. The authority would mean Congress wouldn’t be able to change the pact through amendments.
Fast-track authority is considered crucial to engage trading partners in negotiations and the lack of it is holding up completion of the FTAA. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has made the authority his top goal and hopes to win it by the end of the year.
Reaching a consensus will also be difficult. The pact involves a diverse set of countries, from some of the wealthiest (the U.S. and Canada) to some of the poorest (Haiti) to some of the largest (Brazil) and some of the smallest (Saint Kitts and Nevis.)
While apparel and textiles aren’t likely to be on the table at the ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, industry trade groups and lobbyists are watching it closely. A hemispheric trade pact has the potential to reconfigure apparel sourcing and would have huge implications for the U.S. retail industry, which now imports more than two-thirds of all apparel it sells.
The FTAA would cover a combined population of about 800 million people, more than $11 trillion in production and $3.4 trillion in worldwide trade, according to the General Accounting Office’s March report to the Committee on Finance and the U.S. Senate.
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said she is anticipating positive developments from the meeting, which concludes on Saturday.
“This should reinvigorate the negotiation process, which got bogged down,” she said, adding that the meeting will set the stage for the leaders in Quebec. Hughes said most countries are unwilling to make concessions if the President does not have fast-track authority. She hopes the meeting will focus on trade facilitation measures, such as making it easier to move goods across borders, improving customs clearance and eliminating nontariff barriers.