U.S., EU trade chiefs convince WTO delegates to push toward global trade deal

EU and U.S. trade chiefs on Wednesday exhorted fellow members of the World Trade Organization to push toward an ambitious conclusion of global trade talks that have been deadlocked over the contentious issue of farm trade. U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman warned that a failure to reach a sweeping treaty to lower trade barriers risks a slide into protectionism.

"The time to stop postponing the toughest work has arrived," Portman told trade delegates at a morning session. "I believe either we move forward or we risk moving backward toward protectionism that will stunt economic growth and harm the developing world the most."

EU trade chief Peter Mandelson, blamed by many for holding up the talks amid EU refusal to further cut farm tariffs and subsidies, told delegates that WTO members cannot afford to wait any longer to wrap up the so-called Doha round of talks, originally meant to conclude by 2004.

But Mandelson said the WTO's 149 members will not succeed in that aim unless negotiations move away from the sensitive topic of farm trade and embrace liberalization of industrial goods and services. "We will not succeed, in Hong Kong or after, if we continue to focus on only one part of the round," Mandelson said. "We cannot afford to wait again. When the finishing line is in sight, it is the time to quicken our pace."

The Dec. 13-18 meeting was meant to draw up an outline for a global treaty by the end of 2006 to lower or eliminate trade barriers in agriculture, manufacturing and services.

But negotiations have been bogged down amid accusations from poorer countries that the European Union, the United States, Japan and other wealthy countries are offering insufficient cuts to their agricultural import tariffs and farm subsidies.

After his address, Portman said it was up to the EU to make the first move to kick-start the serious negotiations by offering more concessions on access to its farm markets.

"Unless the EU moves on market access, I don't see anyone else moving," Portman told reporters. Farming accounts for only a small slice of the world economic pie, but its critical role in the lives of billions of people has thrust it to the fore of WTO talks.

Mandelson has said the EU won't change its offer of an average 46 percent cut in farm tariffs unless developing nations offer substantive reductions in their trade barriers on manufactured goods and services.

Underscoring the limited nature of his ability to negotiate, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said in Paris on Tuesday that France will not accept any EU budget accord that forces Europe to reform agricultural policy before 2013. In his comments to delegates, Portman also pressed negotiators not to leave Hong Kong without setting a date for another meeting early next year with the goal of setting up a framework to complete the talks.

"Although we may not achieve all we had hoped for this week, let us set another deadline to keep the pressure on," Portman said. Portman also said the United States will give US$2.7 billion to developing countries in so-called "aid-for-trade", double what it contributed last year, in an attempt "to help make this ministerial meeting a success."

But that money, which is meant to help developing countries build trade infrastructure and other services to better compete in world markets, must accompany substantial progress in slashing trade barriers in agriculture, manufacturing and services in the current "Doha round" of WTO talks, begun in Qatar's capital in 2001, he said, reports the AP. I.L.

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