- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

Negotiations to lower trade barriers and boost the economies of poor nations stumbled yesterday as the United States, the European Union and other nations fought over terms of a broad deal.

Trade ministers from more than 60 nations are meeting in Geneva this week in an effort to salvage World Trade Organization talks that have missed a series of deadlines and now appear deadlocked.

Instead of moving closer together yesterday, European countries squabbled internally while the United States held fast to demands that others have termed unacceptable.

The European bickering followed a pledge by EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson to allow more farm imports into the 25-nation market. The concession would have brought Europe in line with a proposal from a group of developing nations, called the G20, led by Brazil.

The G20 proposal would have wealthy nations cut farm tariffs by an average of 54 percent. The United States has been pushing a two-thirds cut, while the last official offer from Europe was less than 40 percent.

“The EU is prepared, if the circumstances are right, significantly to improve our offer in agricultural market access — moving towards, and close to, what the G20 have asked for,” Mr. Mandelson said.

But France quickly shot down his proposal.

“No authorization was given to move towards the G20 position,” French Trade Minister Christine Lagarde told reporters, the Associated Press reported.

The United States, meanwhile, continued to push other countries to move closer to its proposal on farm goods. The United States has promised to cut its farm subsidies, which distort markets and can harm non-subsidized producers, but only if other nations open their markets to U.S. goods.

“We’re not coming in here like some of the others saying take it or leave it,” said a U.S. trade official who spoke on the condition he not be named. “But we’ve also made it clear this round has to be ambitious.”

The negotiations are expected to continue through the weekend and may pick up again next month.

WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy earlier this week urged the United States, Europe and others to work toward a compromise as soon as possible.

“It is the moment of truth”, Mr. Lamy said. “I don’t think we can postpone the decision anymore.”

The talks are running out of time before political considerations in the United States make an agreement unlikely.

The WTO’s members face a practical deadline of this summer to strike a broad deal if the U.S. Congress is to consider the package under existing trade promotion authority.

The authority allows the president to negotiate and submit trade deals to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, without amendment. It expires in the middle of next year, meaning the broad framework would have to be in place this summer, details finalized by December and Congress notified of the deal by early next year.

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