Trade ministers were skeptical on Saturday about the prospects of concluding stalled global trade liberalization talks this year, with some blaming the United States for foot-dragging.
Ministers from about 20 major economies held informal talks on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum meeting in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, but Egypt's trade minister said they made little progress.
I don't think very much came out of this meeting unfortunately, Rachid Mohamed Rachid said.
If we don't have the participation at ministerial or even ambassador level from the United States, of course it doesn't give us a positive signal, he said. Washington sent only a deputy ambassador and no political representative.
Rachid said there was very little prospect of meeting a G20 goal of concluding trade negotiations this year.
We are not optimistic, we are very concerned, he said.
Leaders of the G20 grouping of major economies, including U.S. President Barack Obama, agreed in Pittsburgh last September on the goal of wrapping up the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations in 2010.
But there has been scant progress since then and many participants say domestic politics and the impact of the financial crisis and high unemployment in the United States and Europe have made chances of an early trade deal more remote.
David Shark, deputy U.S. ambassador to the WTO, who represented Washington at the meeting, declined comment on complaints at the level of U.S. representation.
It was interesting as always, he told reporters. It was just a conversation.
India's Trade Minister Anand Sharma described Saturday's meeting as a free and frank exchange -- diplomatic code for a robust argument -- and said there was an urgent need for trade negotiators to learn lessons from the global financial crisis.
One thing that has come out very forcefully and clearly is that a multilateral rules-based trade regime must be put in place at the earliest, Sharma said.
It was a rules-based system that has prevented the world trade from collapsing during the economic crisis and the global economy stands to gain much.
The long-running 153-nation talks collapsed in 2008 over a dispute between the United States, India and China on protection for farmers in developing countries. Other unresolved issues include cotton subsidies, trade in services and in environmental goods and services.
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told reporters he was encouraged that there had been no retreat into protectionism so far in the global recession, but the political momentum to make the final trade-offs needed in the Doha Development Round, launched in 2001, had still not materialized.
The Obama administration has said big emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil must open their markets more to make a global trade deal worthwhile for U.S. business.
We would like to see the (Doha) round completed as soon as possible, but for that everybody will have to be there, European Union Trade Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told reporters: We cannot expect more than that because of course one of the main partners is not represented at a ministerial level.
We have come to a point when it is the question of political will, he said on arrival for the meeting.
Senior officials are due to conduct a stocktaking exercise in late March to see if an outline WTO deal is possible this year, and participants said no one would want to put negotiating cards on the table at this stage.
(Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler, writing by Paul Taylor and Dominic Evans, editing by Hans Peters)