France concerned by tariff-cutting offers for poorer countries

European Union foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday to discuss the EU's line in world trade talks, as France worries that an EU offer to cut farm subsidies could go beyond what national governments have already agreed to.

France, which has an important agricultural lobby and has always come out in defense of farm subsidies, called the emergency meeting to make sure the EU will not make excessive concessions as poorer countries call on the United States and the EU to make substantial cuts in what they actually dole out to farmers.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said last week the EU was ready to cut "trade-distorting" agricultural support by 70 percent, provided others made similar efforts, the AP reports.

He also offered to reduce the number of sensitive products that have higher import tariffs, such as beef and poultry, but U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said it "doesn't come close to meeting the expectations that all of us have on market access."

Mandelson said he will reassure ministers that the Commission is staying within the mandate agreed upon with the EU's member states, insisting that agriculture was not the only topic on the table as the EU pushes for more market access for its services and industrial products.

The talks at the World Trade Organization to revamp global trade flows need to progress later this week to make the deadline for a framework agreement at a meeting in Hong Kong in December.

President Jacques Chirac wrote to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to voice concern over the handling of the trade talks after the EU and U.S. made offers on farm support to move negotiations forward.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy also criticized Mandelson's tariff-cutting offers, saying they were made without consulting national governments.

But the EU head office insisted Monday that it wanted a trade deal to reflect hard-won reforms to its farm sector agreed on in June 2003.


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