WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said she remains hopeful that trade ministers will reach a framework agreement for cutting agriculture and industrial tariffs at a crucial meeting in Geneva this week, despite strong resistance from major trading partners and expiring time on the clock.

“The focus for this week in Geneva is … primarily to seek a breakthrough on agriculture and [industrial products],” Schwab said Tuesday at a news conference with members of Congress before departing for Geneva.

The USTR said the U.S. will continue to pursue a global trade accord even if this week’s World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Geneva fails to produce an agreement.

“I think the critical point is substance over timing, substance over chronology,” she said. “We’re going to try to get this done as soon as we can … rather than say, ‘If we don’t get this done by this weekend, then it isn’t going to happen.'”

Trade ministers from the WTO’s 149 member nations have missed several key deadlines and have been mired in an agriculture deadlock. They are now facing intensifying pressure to complete the Doha Development Round by an agreed-upon deadline of December.

While the U.S. is still focused on the same timetable, there appears to be flexibility.

“You can’t be stampeded into closing an agreement just by virtue of deadlines,” Schwab said. “Deadlines are important, but deadlines in and of themselves are not going to create an agreement.”

The meetings in Geneva this week and another scheduled at the end of next month are seen by many as a last-ditch attempt to revive the faltering talks that were launched in 2001 and aim to significantly reduce tariffs and open markets.

The outcome will have far-reaching implications for retailers, importers and domestic textile producers. The domestic textile sector has pressed U.S. negotiators for separate textile discussions to counter aggressive cuts in tariffs and provide additional protections on apparel and textile imports from developing countries such as China and Vietnam.

Retailers and importers, on the other hand, are seeking an elimination of tariffs on imported apparel and oppose additional protections on China and other countries.

This story first appeared in the June 28, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Members of Congress have dug in their heels on the Doha Round and are sending strong warnings that they will not approve a deal that doesn’t offer reciprocal tariff cuts and market access on agricultural and industrial products.

“The U.S. Congress is looking very carefully at the Doha Round agreement, especially when it comes to agriculture, which is the mainstay of the negotiations,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.). “We’re not going to agree on the Hill to a bad deal.”

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