Hong Kong summit: WTO members prepare, but no breakthrough in farm trade talks

A last-ditch meeting has failed to break a deadlock in farm trade talks before ministers return to their capitals to prepare for a crucial summit in Hong Kong, they said Saturday.

The World Trade Organization's governing general council has also approved a revised draft negotiating text for consideration by member governments, underscoring just how much work needed to be done to salvage even a watered-down agreement at the Dec. 13-18 ministerial meeting.

The WTO's 148 members are eager to reach a deal in Hong Kong, but the revised draft shows how far they are from agreeing on critical issues including the liberalization of trade in farm products and manufactured goods. It offers no prescription for cutting tariffs and subsidies on either agriculture or manufactured goods two subjects that have held up negotiations for many months.

Trade officials concede that progress is needed in these two sectors before Hong Kong and unless the present gulf in opinion is bridged, it will be impossible to reach any meaningful deal there. Although some progress has been made at meetings in Geneva this week, there are still significant differences, said Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

"We are further advanced than we have been in previous ministerial meetings," added Australia's Trade Minister Mark Vaile. "We should not underestimate the work we have done."

The 25-nation European Union, in particular, has been criticized for not making further cuts to its farm tariffs and subsidies.

"We've made some limited progress," said Brussels' trade chief Peter Mandelson. "We're really doing hard, hard work, not necessarily finding the solutions all the time."

The meeting in Hong Kong is supposed to set up a conclusion to the current Doha round of trade talks, named for the Qatari capital where they were launched in 2001, which aims to cut trade barriers across a wide range of sectors and is supposed to address the needs of developing countries, for whom agriculture is a particularly sensitive topic.

Finance ministers from the world's seven wealthiest nations, meeting in London, said Saturday the WTO must make significant progress toward a global trade treaty when it meets in Hong Kong. Britain's Treasury chief Gordon Brown, who hosted a meeting of G-7 finance ministers and central bankers, called for an "ambitious outcome" to the Doha trade round by the end of 2006.

Brazil and India, who also attended the talks, offered further cuts in tariffs on industrial goods, but demanded further action by the European Union and the United States on farming subsidies and tariffs, reported AP. P.T.

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