Trade ministers from nearly 150 countries gathered in Hong Kong yesterday to work on a deal to open world markets and lift the global economy, with pressure growing for Europe to agree a key cut in farm subsidies.
Hopes for a deal at the six-day meeting, opening formally today, have been low since October after preparatory talks failed to reach a breakthrough on the key area of agriculture subsidies and tariffs.
Yesterday, U.S. trade representative Rob Portman put responsibility for success or failure squarely on the shoulders of the European Union which pays out billions of dollars each year in farm subsidies.
Earlier this year, the United States offered to cut farm aid by 60 percent by 2010 if the EU scraps 80 percent of its subsidies. So far the Europeans have refused to budge.
"The key to development is market access, agriculture access is the top challenge and we think that we need to make more progress here," Portman told reporters in Hong Kong.
"The U.S. made a bold agricultural proposal in October that is yet to be matched by others including the European Union," he said.
Adding its voice to the dispute, Brazil, one of the leading developing countries at the talks, warned yesterday that no deal would be made unless the EU made bigger concessions on agriculture subsidies.
"Unless the European Union improves its offer on agriculture, I do not believe we can complete the Doha cycle," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celsio Amorim told reporters, refering to the round of talks launched in the Qatari capital in 2001.
And Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon told AFP the developed countries, led by the EU, had to offer more ground.
"More has to be given than received by the developed countries," McKinnon said. "(Nothing is moving) because of the intransigence on agriculture," McKinnon said. "Agriculture has become the trigger of trust. With a really significant move on that by the Europeans and the U.S., a whole lot of other things can happen."
Agriculture is not the only issue to be discussed at the talks, which will also cover industrial goods and the service industries such as banking and insurance.
And a rather embattled EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said yesterday he would not be offering any new concessions on agriculture, saying the emphasis had to go to other areas.
"I come to Hong Kong to do business with my partners and I hope that others have come to do business with me," Mandelson told reporters.
"This doesn't mean I will be tabling a new agricultural offer. I don't believe that this is what the round needs now from Europe, even if we had the latitude to do so," said the commissioner, effectively barred by some EU member countries from giving much ground on subsidies.
"It is therefore for others to come up with first or better proposals on the key areas of negotiations," he said.
Nevertheless, WTO director general Pascal Lamy said Monday that developing nations will succeed in gaining concessions on agriculture because they form a majority in the global trade organization.
"It will result at the end of the negotiation in progress, substantial progress, which developing countries are looking for," Lamy said. "And you can rely on the fact that, with two-thirds of the members being developing countries, a consensus will not happen without something serious in this direction," he said.