Leading negotiating nations are closer than ever before to concluding successfully the arduous Doha round of world trade talks, India's trade minister said on Tuesday, adding an end-2008 deadline could be reached.

The United States and the European Union are calling on developing countries to open up their markets to manufacturers by cutting import tariffs in return for cuts by rich countries to subsidies and tariffs on farm goods.

"We are closer than ever before in closing the Doha round. We are at the last mile," Kamal Nath said at a global business forum organised by Fortune magazine in New Delhi.

Later, at a conference organised for the visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Nath said the Doha round could be concluded by the end of next year as there was greater convergence between those negotiating.

"There is great convergence between India and EU. We have almost total convergence. I believe convergence can be found on industrial products in the next two months," Nath said.

"If EU is willing to set a time frame, India is willing to work with it." The Doha round was launched six years ago to boost the global economy and help poor countries export more.


Merkel said differences had narrowed but a deal had to be concluded before U.S. presidential elections next year.

"We are working with India on the Doha round. India certainly will have a constructive role to play. We have a small road to travel. If we have to start again after the American elections, we will fail," Merkel told the conference.

World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy has said a deal is within reach if countries could grab it because negotiators have made significant progress on technical issues since September.

Developing countries say proposals currently on the table are not in the spirit of the Doha round's development mandate because they require poor countries to cut their industrial tariffs by more than rich countries would do.

Some are also concerned that opening up food markets could hurt the livelihoods of millions of subsistence farmers.

Nath said India would not be able to exercise flexibility in other areas if the concerns of its 650 million farmers -- many of them poor and indebted -- were not taken on board.

"I hope in the next two months, there will be some convergence," he said.

Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said earlier at the Fortune conference that a rise in protectionist sentiment in some advanced countries was a matter of concern.

"We have gained immensely through the globalisation of trade. In recent years our exports have grown an average 20 percent a year. Yet there are some aspects that worry us," Chidambaram said.

"Firstly, the rise of protectionist tendencies in some advanced economies and secondly, even as we find tariff barriers being reduced, we also find new non-tariff barriers are erected."