- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

Global trade negotiators this week will attempt to keep alive an ambitious effort to boost world economic growth, though differences over farm policies continue to divide Europe from the U.S., Brazil and other agricultural powers.

The World Trade Organization’s 148 members are fast approaching a mid-December summit in Hong Kong that is likely to reveal how far and how fast markets will open to competition.

“I always hesitate to use the term ‘make or break,’ but I think next week will determine whether we can get into the position of making Hong Kong a success or not,” Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, said last week.

Mr. Mandelson is scheduled to meet with his counterparts from the United States, Australia, Brazil and India today in London, and with a broader group tomorrow and Wednesday in Geneva in an effort to advance the talks.

Those countries are pressuring him to cut farm subsidies and open the European market to more agricultural imports.

“I think it is fair to say that the fate of the [negotiations] hangs in the balance because of the lack of progress in agriculture, where much of the responsibility for this lies with the European Union,” U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman told lawmakers last week.

Mr. Portman will follow the London and Geneva meetings with visits to Burkina Faso, an African country that has played an important role in farm negotiations, and to India, China and South Korea, where he hopes to enlist the nations to raise pressure on Europe for more concessions.

Europe says it can’t budge.

“We have pushed what we can offer to our absolute limit,” said an official from the 25-nation European Union, who asked not to be named.

The WTO’s members in 2001 formally began the Doha round of trade talks, named for the city in Qatar that hosted the first meeting. The goal was to reduce barriers to trade, such as industrial tariffs and agricultural subsidies, as a way to boost world economic growth and help the poorest nations prosper.

The Hong Kong meeting is an important milestone in the talks. Negotiators hope to create a final outline for the new trade rules so bureaucrats can complete details by the end of 2006.

That agreement would, in turn, have to be approved by the government of each WTO member. In the U.S., that means the Bush administration hopes to send legislation to Congress in early 2007 — before Trade Promotion Authority expires at the end of June that year. The authority forces Congress to vote yes or no on trade agreements, with no amendments.

If that timeline does not hold, the overall pact would face a much tougher road to approval in Congress.

To spur the talks, Mr. Portman last month offered substantial cuts to some U.S. farm subsidy programs in return for broad new access to overseas markets, including tariff cuts of as much as 90 percent.

“This is simply not realistic. This is not going to happen,” an EU official said of the 90 percent figure.

The European Union has been hemmed in by France, which is the biggest beneficiary of European agriculture subsidies and considers farming part of its national identity. The French government has rejected any further concessions in the WTO talks.

“The good news is that the EU and U.S. both have started to become more specific about what they might do on agriculture. They have shown some willingness to press up against their domestic political constituencies,” said Sherman Katz, an international trade specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Those efforts have isolated the more protectionist forces, such as France, he said.

“[France] will take the blame if talks collapse,” Mr. Katz said.

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

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