The head of the World Trade Organization is hoping confessions will lead to concessions, which in turn may salvage the ailing Doha Round of trade liberalization talks that have been locked in limbo for almost a decade.
Pascal Lamy received diplomats at hourly intervals Wednesday in an effort to hear all 153 member countries' views ahead of the Easter break and a grand plenary meeting in Geneva on April 29, when negotiators are expected to declare whether a Doha deal is still doable.
The Frenchman has held several weeks of these so-called "confessionals" even as anger mounts among smaller members about the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the United States on the one side, and major developing countries such as China, India and Brazil on the other.
The Doha Round, launched in Qatar's capital in 2001, was meant to add billions of dollars to the world economy by stimulating global trade. But the all-or-nothing format of the negotiations appears increasingly heading toward nothing.
"We are now in a very difficult situation and our ability to conclude the round this year might seriously be in question," a group of 13 middleweight trading powers wrote in an open letter last week.
"We believe that a deal is achievable," said the group, which included Indonesia, Australia and Switzerland. "We believe a deal is also worth fighting for, both in its own right, and in the longer-term interests of the multilateral trading system upon which we all so heavily rely."
Others, like EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, signaled the world should prepare for a possible collapse of the round.
"There is no reason to be optimistic at this moment in time," De Gucht told European lawmakers earlier this month, adding that if Doha talks fail there should be a "Plan B."
He offered no details on what the alternatives to Doha could be, but the EU has been busily pursuing free trade agreements with countries in Asia and Latin America.
Such bilateral deals have trade groups worried about the future of the WTO as an institution. Disputes over everything from shrimp fishing to aircraft subsidies are settled at the WTO because members respect the rules negotiated there.
"If political leaders cannot make progress toward an agreement, alternative approaches to trade liberalization outside of the WTO are likely to accelerate, which have the potential to weaken the multilateral trading system," the National Foreign Trade Council said recently.
The Washington-based business group's vice president for global trade issues, Jake Colvin, said a successful Doha Round still provides the best possible outcome. But he conceded that a leap of faith may be required if the chairs of nine WTO negotiating groups deliver progress reports Thursday showing little movement in areas ranging from agricultural goods to trade in services.
"I think it's a poorly held secret that the texts are going to reveal gaps that may be unbridgeable," Colvin told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
Other observers say that even if the Doha Round is buried, years of negotiations have provided members with tangible benefits they wouldn't otherwise have enjoyed.
"The punch line is: membership has its privileges," said Jason H. Grant, an assistant professor of agriculture and applied economics at Virginia Tech.
He estimates that WTO members trade on average two thirds more than nonmembers, and existing agreements _ which all new members have to sign up to when they join _ boost the global trade in farm products alone by over $100 billion a year.