- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

Trade officials from the United States and Europe are trying to restart stalled global talks but continue to spar over the same farm issues that helped undermine negotiations five months ago.

Subsidies that wealthy countries pay to their farmers, often reducing prices and making products from poor nations uncompetitive, remain the key to resolving differences.

World Trade Organization talks in September collapsed when poor and rich nations fought to a standstill over new rules for global commerce, jeopardizing an effort to spur economic growth and raise incomes around the globe.

As part of a wider effort to restart the talks, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick has emphasized an end to agricultural export subsidies, one of the most contentious issues last year and one clearly aimed at the 15-nation European Union.

“Let’s quit fooling around. Let’s eliminate them all,” Mr. Zoellick said yesterday in Geneva, where the WTO is based. “Our position is that we would be willing to eliminate them tomorrow.”

Mr. Zoellick also has emphasized export subsidies, used by the European Union to help farmers sell their products overseas, during a series of meetings and press conferences as he travels to world capitals in Asia, Africa and Europe.

EU officials, who have said they will eliminate some but not all export subsidies, are not pleased with being singled out.

“He could have been slightly more outspoken about also tackling forms of export subsidies the U.S. uses,” Franz Fischler, the EU farm commissioner, said yesterday in Washington.

The United States spends heavily on export credits to give farmers an unfair edge on the world market and billions of dollars are spent “on export promotion under the guise of food aid,” Mr. Fischler said.

The United States spent about $18.7 billion on farm subsidies in 2003, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, while Europe spends roughly $50 billion on rural development and its common agricultural policy.

The U.S. subsidies have hampered Bush administration efforts to forge a regional free-trade agreement among 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere and have caused disputes with major trade partners, such as Mexico.

The United States and the European Union last year created a joint position on agricultural trade to use as a basis for the September negotiations, held in Cancun, Mexico. Developing nations, led by Brazil, rejected the proposal and now the trans-Atlantic allies appear effectively divided on farm aid.

Mr. Zoellick and EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, following a meeting earlier this week in Mombasa, Kenya, said they are making progress in a number of other areas.

“Little by little, we make progress,” Mr. Zoellick said in Mombasa.

But time is short. Both sides agree that they need to make significant progress — and reach the kind of agreement they missed last year in Cancun — before August.

Mr. Lamy, Mr. Fischler and most of their colleagues are scheduled to leave their posts on the European Commission at the end of October, and the United States faces a presidential election in November.

Mr. Zoellick said he wanted the WTO’s 146 members to agree on a framework for trade liberalization by the end of July.

Such an agreement could lead to a Cancun-like summit in July or August, he said.

Mr. Fischler this week said he was “not convinced” that another summit would be necessary to make progress on negotiations.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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