World Trade Organisation mediators have circulated new negotiating texts that will serve as the blueprint for an outline deal in the WTO's long-running Doha round.
They will form the basis for discussions when ministers meet in Geneva in the week of July 21 to try to agree the outlines of a Doha deal, named for negotiations launched in the Qatari capital in November 2001 to free up world trade.
"These revised texts set the stage for a decisive moment in the Doha round," WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said.
"A deal to open trade in agriculture and goods means more growth, better prospects for development and a more stable and predictable trading system. We must not let this opportunity slip through our fingers," he said in a statement.
Lamy, a former European Union (EU) trade chief, called the make-or-break meeting, which is the last opportunity to reach a deal before change in the US administration in January 2009 that could see the talks put on ice for years.
In Brussels, the European Commission said on Thursday it welcomed positive steps made in the new negotiating texts but said that "important gaps" still needed to be bridged.
"We are committed to this negotiation, but we need serious efforts from our negotiating partners to reach a balanced agreement," a spokesman for European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said in a statement.
In Washington, US trade representative spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said that the Bush administration would be reviewing the texts in coming days.
"The US is committed to concluding a successful Doha round this year that achieves new market access for agricultural and industrial products and services in both developed and emerging market economies," she said on behalf of Trade Representative Susan Schwab who will attend the ministerial talks.
But the United States said it was time leading developing countries made market-opening offers "commensurate with their increasing participation and role in the world economy".
Rules for the 21st century
Trade experts say a deal is needed to counter rising protectionist pressures that threaten prosperity, and would be a shot in the arm for the ailing world economy.
The aim is to rewrite the rules of world trade, last codified in 1994, for the 21st century and remove distortions that developing countries say put them at a disadvantage.
Agreement on agriculture and industrial goods - the most sensitive chapters - could open the way for deals in other areas such as services like banking and telecoms as well as trade rules on subsidies and unfairly priced imports.
A deal would see rich countries like the United States, Japan and the EU's members open up their food markets by reducing protection for their farmers.
In return they will get greater access to developing country markets for industrial goods and services, especially in emerging nations like India, Brazil, China and South Africa.
Any outline deal by ministers will be followed by months of detailed work translating it to individual goods and services, before ministers can sign off on a final agreement.
Over the past 10 months negotiators have edged closer on a range of technical issues, mainly in agriculture, but differences between rich and poor countries remain wide, particularly in industrial goods, and the services talks have not moved for nearly three years.
The texts issued by mediators on Thursday made no changes to current proposed ranges for tariff and subsidy cuts for both agriculture and industrial goods - a political decision that only ministers can take.
There are still differences on the complex technical question of how countries shield sensitive farm products from tariff cuts, a concern to food exporters rich and poor.
On industrial goods, the United States and the EU want to ensure that waivers to developing country tariff cuts do not allow them to shield entire sectors such as automobiles or garments from market opening.