- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

Egypt supports U.S. efforts to gain world acceptance and market access for genetically modified crops, Egypt’s top trade official said yesterday.

Youssef Boutros-Ghali, Egypt’s foreign-trade minister, clarified his country’s position following Egypt’s withdrawal last month from a U.S.-led case filed with the World Trade Organization.

The case challenges the European Union’s moratorium on the sale or production of new genetically modified crops.

“There is no difference between the two positions [of the United States and Egypt]. There may be a difference in approach, but there is no difference in our positions,” Mr. Boutros-Ghali said during a meeting with U.S. businessmen and reporters in Washington.

Egypt’s withdrawal, announced in a May 27 letter from Egypt’s ambassador to the European Union, was viewed as a blow to the U.S. case against the 15-nation European Union.

The biotech spat between the United States and the European Union has been fueled by bitter rhetoric.

The Bush administration has cast the case as a fight for developing countries that need biotechnology to feed their populations and compete in world markets. EU officials cite consumer-health and environmental-safety concerns over biotech.

Egypt had been the only country from Africa to formally support the case. Argentina and Canada also joined the complaint.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali said Egypt has started consultations with the European Union on the biotech matter. Similar consultations between the United States and the European Union broke down last week, prompting the Bush administration to seek a ruling from the WTO.

Biotech crops, like soybeans, corn and cotton, are genetically modified to withstand pesticides, resist pests and withstand drought.

The biotech case also was linked to Egypt’s bid for a free-trade agreement with the United States. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, told Egyptian officials he was concerned and perplexed by reports that the country might not participate in the WTO challenge.

“One of the criteria that ought to be used to determine with whom the United States negotiates future FTAs is whether a country shares the same vision of the global trading system as does the United States,” he said in a letter earlier this month.

As Senate Finance Committee chairman, Mr. Grassley is a key voice on trade issues in the Senate.

Bush administration officials also have retreated from earlier comments that Egypt is an immediate candidate for a free-trade agreement, though the change in tack has not been explicitly linked to the biotech issue.

Robert B. Zoellick, U.S. trade representative, said earlier this week that Egypt had not made sufficient regulatory reforms.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it for people. Egypt has some work to do,” Mr. Zoellick said while in the Middle East to lay out a trade plan for the region.

Egypt has been keen to enter into a free-trade agreement with the United States, but also is sensitive to economic reality — the European Union is its largest export market and trade partner.

Yesterday, Mr. Boutros-Ghali said that Egypt wants to start negotiating with the United States immediately on a bilateral trade pact.

“We believe the time to commence negotiations for a free-trade agreement is now,” he said.

Egyptian officials also have emphasized that the country is the key to Mr. Bush’s proposed Middle East Free Trade Area, an initiative that would help integrate the region and tie it economically to the United States.

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