GENEVA — More than a hundred ministers gather here Monday for a WTO conference where they are likely to renew pledges to freer world trade while avoiding hard bargaining to secure an overall deal under the Doha round.
The Doha round of talks, launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, has foundered ever since on sharp disagreements between developed and developing nations on tariff and subsidy cuts.
While previous ministerial meetings have been venues for governments to make detailed offers and counter-offers, the World Trade Organization's 153 member-states have decided that Doha is not officially on the agenda here in Geneva.Related article: Protest ahead of WTO meet
"The very fact that Doha is not on the agenda shows that a deal is not in sight," said Romain Benicchio, a trade spe******t with Oxfam.
Ministers are instead expected to stress their overall commitment to completing the round, even though such pledges have been made over the years and deadlines repeatedly missed.
The United States in particular will be under the spotlight.
"The question is whether some countries will start the blame game against the Americans," said a European diplomat who declined to be named.
Since the change in administration in the United States, the new US trade representative, Ron Kirk, has revealed little about the Obama team's position on Doha.
During a visit to Geneva in May, Kirk said WTO member states should consider a "new path" in order to get a swift conclusion.
"We should all be willing to consider changes to the process that would put the negotiations on a more direct path to success," said Kirk after his first visit to the WTO.
But since then, little progress has been logged.
Diplomats in Geneva have said the fact that the US mission here still has no ambassador to the WTO suggests an absence of real interest on the part of the US administration.
"Central to the deadlock is the Obama administration?s hesitation when it comes to trade policy," said Anne Laure Constantin, project officer at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
"Caught between Congress -- where influential voices still insist on more market access for US based firms -- and disillusioned workers? unions advocating for trade policies that benefit workers rather than shareholders, President Obama is unsure," she said.
Meanwhile another key player in talks, the European Union, will lose its trade commissioner, Catherine Ashton, on the second day of the WTO ministerial, as she is due to step into her new post as EU foreign policy chief.
On Friday, former Belgian foreign minister Karel de Gucht was appointed to take over the trade portfolio from Ashton.
Ashton is still scheduled to attend the Geneva ministerial, although Brussels has not confirmed when she will arrive or depart.
Amid slow progress on Doha, analysts nonetheless stress the need for national pledges to carry on negotiating.
"It's still very important that countries continue to negotiate, developing countries need a development agreement," said Benicchio.
"The substance is more important than the deadlines. The commitment by countries to act to negotiate is also very important," he added.
Ninety-six ministers from member states of the WTO and another nine ministers from non-member states will attend the three-day ministerial conference that closes Wednesday.