By Kristi Ellis
WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. trade official said Thursday the U.S. remains committed to completing a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005, but he laid out sharp differences that could impede progress or cripple the talks as they did to global negotiations in Cancún.
At the same time, a broad coalition of labor, environmental, consumer and human rights groups said it plans to launch a 30-city March to Miami protest in Seattle on Saturday, which will culminate in a massive protest at the FTAA meeting of ministers in Miami in November.
Peter Allgeier, deputy U.S. trade representative, told a group of business leaders that the U.S. and Brazil need to work together and avoid “engaging in divisive rhetoric” in order to complete a successful FTAA, which aims to create a Western Hemispheric trade zone among 34 countries. But the failure of the World Trade Organization’s global trade talks in Cancún casts a long shadow and could present a setback for the FTAA negotiations, which are already facing many hurdles.
“It would be a shame to miss another opportunity [with the FTAA],” Allgeier said. “Other regions do not have this opportunity to lock into a permanent preferential access to the U.S. market, which is extremely important now with the strong competition from Asia, primarily from China.”
The next meeting of the FTAA’s Trade Negotiations Committee is scheduled for Sept.30-Oct.2 in Trinidad and Tobago, and that will be followed by the crucial meeting in November in Miami with trade ministers of the 34 countries.
As for the growing groundswell of opposition at home against the regional trade pact, AFL-CIO secretary treasurer Richard Trumka, at a Thursday press conference here, said, “Since the protest in Seattle [at a WTO meeting in 1999 that also collapsed], the rising tide of opposition to trade policies that exploit workers and reduce standards of living has grown, from Quebec to Genoa, from Doha to Cancún.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Brazil, which have been struggling to find common ground on issues such as agricultural subsidies, trade remedy measures and intellectual property rights, will now face new complexities with the collapse of the WTO talks in Cancún.
For one, Brazil led a group of developing countries known as the G-22 in Cancún, which opposed the U.S. and European Union’s paper on agriculture and pushed for more concessions on opening agricultural markets. That could create a problem in the FTAA talks since Brazil is a co-chair with the U.S.
Asked whether the U.S. is rethinking its trade partners based on their roles in Cancún, Allgeier said the U.S. looks at many factors. But he noted it could create a problem in Congress, which must approve all trade deals.
“You’ve seen the statements from lawmakers who see inconsistencies in [some countries] negotiating free trade agreements with the U.S. and then harsh criticism of the U.S. in other trade negotiations,” said Allgeier. “This is something we and countries we are negotiating with have to cope with. Key members of Congress who usually support trade deals, have raised questions.”
Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay are members of a trade bloc known as Mercosur, which advocates a three-track approach in the FTAA talks, where some issues are handled bilaterally, regionally or globally at the World Trade Organization.
Prior to Cancún, Mercosur had been pushing for sensitive issues such as rules on strengthening intellectual property rights, services, investment and government procurement to be negotiated in the context of the WTO and not in the FTAA negotiations.
The U.S. likewise pushed for domestic agricultural subsidies and rules on trade remedy measures to be negotiated at the WTO level. Now that those global talks have indefinitely stalled, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. and Brazil will change their stances.
Allgeier did not mince words Thursday about the U.S. position on Mercosur’s three-track proposal. He said, “Unfortunately, the three-track approach put forward recently by Mercosur as an alternative model has more in common with those outdated approaches than with the modern, comprehensive agreements negotiated by the U.S. with Chile, Singapore and five Central American countries.”
He said the U.S. advocates a single, integrated regional free trade agreement, not an agreement that creates “bilateral corridors” and he also warned the U.S. is prepared to negotiate with individual countries if the regional talks do not move forward.
But Allgeier added that the U.S. is not approaching the FTAA talks with the attitude: “You are either with us or against us,” which is a phrase President George W. Bush used in the U.S. fight against terrorism.
“We are not saying the countries have to accept the U.S. position on all issues,” he said. “We have to bridge the differences. We can’t say ‘it’s our way or the highway’ and they cannot say ‘it’s their way or the highway.’ “