Ministers from top trade powers met Wednesday to try to narrow differences on U.S. and European Union farm tariffs and subsidies, the main sticking point in World Trade Organization talks that aim to reach a wide-ranging agreement by the end of the year. Officials from Washington and Brussels gathered a day after U.S. President George W. Bush and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso pledged their mutual interest in opening up world trade markets for agriculture.
"We have a huge amount of work to do in very little time," WTO chief Pascal Lamy told the organization's governing general council. "This is the message I will be sending to the ministers I will be meeting with."
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson won a vote of confidence from EU governments Tuesday, facing down France, which had demanded guarantees that he make no excessive concessions at the expense of French farmers, according to the AP.
But Paris raised the stakes again Wednesday when it announced that it does not support EU proposals on farm trade after EU officials were unable to demonstrate that Mandelson had remained within his negotiating mandate, French Trade Minister Christine Lagarde said.
"As things stand, France therefore cannot support the Commission in the agriculture proposals it has made," Lagarde said.
Mandelson said his task in Geneva was to "reassure WTO partners" of the EU's commitment to liberalizing world trade. "The EU will show some further flexibility, indicating how we want to move forward on agriculture," he added.
Mandelson is also under pressure to make an improved offer on cutting European aid to farmers, a week after U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman gave negotiations a boost with a proposal to make deeper cuts in U.S. farm support programs.
But Mandelson stressed that Brussels needs to see concessions on trade in industrial goods and service industries, otherwise EU member states may not be convinced that it is worth making concessions on farm aid.
"Our meetings this week must contain realism and broader ambition beyond agricultural issues if we are to move forward," he added.
But Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim insisted agriculture remained the key, saying negotiations cannot progress to other areas until a deadlock on farm trade is resolved.
"That's a very unfortunate statement," Amorim said in response to Mandelson's comments. "This (negotiation) is not to extract concessions from developing countries and then seeing what we can do in agriculture."
Amorim said the G-20 group of developing countries, led by Brazil and India, hoped that the EU would propose deeper cuts in its farm tariffs in the next two days.