At the WTO's informal meeting starting here on Monday, 25 trade ministers will attempt to find common ground over the divisive issues of farm subsidies and medicine for poorer countries that have stalled the latest round of global trade talks.
The three-day meeting here is seen as crucial before the 146-member WTO's ministerial summit in Cancun, Mexico in September.
The latest round of free trade talks has made little progress since being launched in 2001 in Doha, Qatar.
So far, none of the deadlines for fixing negotiation modalities have been respected at only one and a half months away from the mid-way point for completion of the Doha Round, set at the end of next year.
This informal meeting, or "mini-ministerial," in Montreal -- the third this year after gatherings in Tokyo and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt -- "is the last chance to save Cancun," said one French lobbyist and WTO expert.
And failure of the Doha Round could altogether jeopardize the credibility of the eight-year-old WTO, as bilateral trade pacts are turned to instead.
Senior Canadian officials played down the Montreal talks as a make-or-break time.
"What we're doing in Montreal is we're looking for countries to bring new signals of flexibility to the table that would allow negotiators to go back to Geneva and start working towards an agreement on modalities," one Canadian official said on background.
That way, he continued, "ministers [will] have a smaller number of questions to deal with in Cancun ... the real objective in Cancun is to try to establish modalities as well as a timeline for the rest of the negotiations."
His remarks came as WTO director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi announced in Geneva Friday a sharp increase in the pace of ailing trade liberalization talks with daily meetings for heads of delegations from WTO member states starting August 11.
"We can only move forward if we can see real definite signs for the delegations here to move, and mainly from the key delegations that will have to take a leadership role," Supachai said of the Montreal talks.
Carlos Perez del Castillo, the Uruguayan diplomat spearheading the talks, said from the US and the EU in Montreal he expected to see "signals for possible movement and signals for possible trade-offs."
Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's trade minister who will be hosting his counterparts from the US, Japan, the EU, South Africa and Brazil among other nations, said Friday he was "very confident" the talks would lay the groundwork needed before the Cancun summit.
"Generally, if you look at other cycles of talks that we have had from the WTO to the GATT, trade ministers commit to the talks very late in the process," he said, saying civil servants and experts do the job until the "last sprint."
On agriculture, talks are stalled over conditions to progressively reduce export subsidies and on access for developing countries' products to enter rich nations' markets.
With so many developing countries comprising the WTO, agricultural subsidies are seen as key, with African nations and the Cairns Group (Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Canada, etc.) calling for the US and Europeans to lower their farm subsidies.
Negotiations over medicine, meanwhile, became deadlocked in December when the US, under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, blocked an accord on the importation by developing nations of generic copies of patented medicine durign a health crisis.