EU trade chief to brief ministers in last huddle before global trade talks

EU trade ministers meet Monday to discuss a crucial round of World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong amid doubts that it may not make a hoped-for breakthrough next month that could open up global trade and help the world's poorest countries.

The EU's latest offer to cut farm tariffs has been sharply criticized by trade partners who said average tariff cuts of 46 percent did not go far enough.

The fight over cutting agricultural subsidies threatens to derail progress at the Hong Kong negotiations Dec. 13-18 that aim to resolve many of the issues that have been blocking the Doha round of trade talks _ named for the Qatari capital where it was launched in 2001.

Some European countries have sniped at the EU's negotiating tactics with France saying it was not clear the offer was within agreed limits.

In October, ministers backed EU trade chief Peter Mandelson, rejecting a French demand that he run any new concessions past national governments. However, they demanded that Mandelson update them regularly.

French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Mandelson needed clear agreement from all 25 nations before any final deal was reached, saying ministers dictated the negotiating mandate.

Mandelson has warned that a final deal might not be possible before the end of the year after negotiators failed to make progress at talks in London and Geneva earlier this month.

Most of the key decisions on the figures may have to wait until early next year.

He said the EU will not make another offer on agriculture before the talks, calling for more movement on industrial tariffs and services.

The final treaty, when completed, would be binding on all 148 WTO members, which is why it provokes such high emotion among negotiators. Previous trade meetings in Seattle and Cancun collapsed among sometimes violent anti-globalization protests.

The round is already well behind its original December 2004 deadline, AP reported. V.A.