America's trade ambassador on Wednesday urged European negotiators to agree to slash agricultural tariffs at meetings next week, saying World Trade Organization talks in December could be in jeopardy if they don't.
European and U.S. farm subsidies and tariffs -- and the extent to which countries will cut these trade barriers -- have become the focus of talks aimed at forging an outline deal before December's meeting of the WTO's 148 member countries in Hong Kong.
"If we can't pull together next week," U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said of the agriculture negotiations, "I think it's very difficult to see how we can pull together the other issues ... in time for a successful Hong Kong meeting. So the pressure's on."
The fate of the talks, Portman told lawmakers at a U.S. House Agriculture Committee hearing, "hangs in the balance because of the lack of progress in agriculture," adding that "much of the responsibility on this lies with the European Union."
The WTO talks are meant to boost the world's economy by lowering trade barriers, and an agreement in Hong Kong would allow WTO members to conclude the so-called Doha round of trade talks next year.
But the deadlock on agriculture has proven tough.
On Friday, the European Union offered to reduce average agricultural tariffs by 46 percent, its steepest ever farm tariff cuts, but well below what the United States had proposed. In exchange for opening its farm market, the EU wants concessions in other areas, notably service industries and market access for industrial goods.
Poorer countries want the United States and the EU to make substantial cuts in aid to farmers, saying subsidies in rich nations keep world prices artificially low and undermine their exports.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told lawmakers that next week's talks are crucial to getting an overall agreement, saying a deal could happen, "but it will require a better proposal by the EU."
He said the United States wouldn't be the only WTO nation to make dramatic farm tariff cuts.
"We will not settle for a package that does not increase real market access," he said. "To be frank, a new global pact is in jeopardy unless Europe shows still more flexibility. ... Time is clearly running out.", AP reported. V.A.