Trade ministers expressed gloom on Saturday about the prospects of concluding stalled global trade liberalization talks this year, with many 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.
Symbolizing the Obama administration's reluctance to commit to an endgame in the long-running negotiations, the world's biggest economy sent only a deputy ambassador who was not authorized to speak.
We had other representatives who could not take the floor because they were not ministers, Swiss President Doris Leuthard, who chaired the meeting, told a news conference. Those who are not present don't have the floor.
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.
Rachid said there was very little prospect of meeting that goal, adding: We are not optimistic, we are very concerned.
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. envoy to the WTO, declined comment on the complaints at the level of U.S. representation but said: It was interesting as always. It was just a conversation.
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.
Brazilian Trade Minister Celso Amorim suggested that G20 leaders should get involved, as at last month's Copenhagen U.N. climate talks, to make key trade-offs needed to clinch a deal.
But WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy told reporters any such top-level engagement would require lengthy preparation to boil down the complex issues to simple, manageable choices.
Leuthard said ministers agreed the strength of the WTO system had safeguarded free trade during the recession, but the longer the world went without a new pact, the bigger the risk of a retreat into protectionism.
India's Trade Minister Anand Sharma agreed there was an urgent need for trade negotiators to learn lessons from the global financial crisis.
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, Sharma said.
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.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean saw hope in the fact that Obama's State of the Union address on Wednesday had underscored the link between free trade and job creation.
Look at President Obama's speech where he talks about the objective of doubling exports. That can't be done unless trade is liberalized, he said.
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)