A transatlantic row on food aid boiled over and anti-globalization protesters clashed with police yesterday as troubled trade talks got under way in Hong Kong.
Deadlocked in negotiations for a free trade accord because of differences over cutting subsidies and import tariffs, World Trade Organization states shifted their focus to delivering a package of trade support for developing nations.
But U.N. chief Kofi Annan told ministers of nearly 150 states that they must make real progress on the Doha trade round at their six-day meeting or disappoint the millions who "yearn to lift themselves out of poverty."
Tension between the United States and the 25-nation European Union burst into the open as the meeting got under way, with European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson calling for "radical reform" to the U.S. system of food aid for developing nations.
Washington sends aid donations in the form of domestic corn, wheat and other commodities, but Brussels says cash is quicker and less likely to affect the delicate balance of local trade.
"Food aid for poor countries and emergency relief can be a tool to advance development and for humanitarian relief," Mandelson told a news conference. "But the U.S. program is designed to give support to U.S. agricultural producers."
He also blasted a U.N. newspaper advertisement which said that restrictions on donations of food to the United Nations could take food out of the mouths of hungry children.
"I find it shocking that U.N. agencies should be financing an advert ... that is designed to support U.S. trade-distorting policies on food aid," he said.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman told reporters he did not understand the EU "obsession" with food aid. His spokeswoman, Christin Baker, said Washington had put forward a proposal to tighten food aid to ensure it does not skew local commerce.
At the opening ceremony of the talks, dozens of protesters inside the hall forced WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy to raise his voice as they chanted: "Development yes, Doha no'."
Clash with police
Outside, over 100 protesters leapt into Hong Kong harbor after a march by 4,500 people against trade liberalization.
"The WTO is driving us to our deaths," one Korean protester yelled as the protesters bobbed in the murky waters around a city which, ironically, owes much of its prosperity to a long tradition of international trade.
Nine people, including two police officers, were slightly injured as police used a skin-irritant spray to force back a group of protesters. But there was none of the intense violence seen during the last WTO meetings in Cancun and Seattle.
Hong Kong had originally been billed as the last milestone to an agreement on the Doha trade round, which was launched four years ago in Qatar with the aim of lifting hundreds of millions in the developing world out of poverty through increased trade.
The WTO nations still hope to reach a final deal by the end of 2006. But, bogged down over how far to open their farm, services and factory goods markets to more trade, they have given up plans to seal a blueprint in Hong Kong.
The EU, in particular, has faced huge pressure to make deeper cuts in agriculture tariffs than the average 39 percent it has offered. But it has refused to budge without balancing pledges from developing states to open their markets to industrial goods.