WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (:Reuters): US Trade Representative Rob Portman said yesterday the European Union must improve its offer on access to agricultural markets if World Trade Organisation talks are to make headway.
Agreement among the 148 member countries on a deal to cut trade-distorting subsidies and tariffs on agriculture is seen as key if a WTO ministerial meeting this December is to finalise a blueprint for lowering global trade barriers.
"We will not be able to get to services or industrial tariffs or development unless we can untie the Gordian knot of agriculture. And the only way to untie it is for the European Union now to come forward with a substantial market access proposal," Portman told reporters.
Asked if it was realistic to expect the EU to improve its offer, given tensions between member states over Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson's existing proposal, Portman said: "I believe it's very realistic. I do hope that member states understand the significance of the current situation."
He urged the EU to present an improved offer when negotiations resume in Geneva next week.
However, France, the staunchest defender of the EU's generous subsidies to farmers and its high tariffs on imports of farm produce from outside the bloc, has called a high-level EU meeting Tuesday to discuss the WTO talks. Paris is expected to vent its fears that Europe is offering too much on agriculture in order to secure a global trade deal.
The EU has so far offered a 70 per cent reduction in trade- distorting farm subsidies, largely in line with a reform already agreed by member states. It also offered cuts of at least 50 per cent in its highest farm import tariffs and tighter controls on the amount of "sensitive" goods it most protects.
The United States said it is prepared to cut its subsidies by 60 per cent but that others such as the EU and Japan, which spend more, should slash theirs by 80 per cent.
The United States is proposing "real" cuts in its domestic farm programs, despite the skepticism expressed by some countries, Portman said.
Combined spending on US trade-distorting farm programs, including counter-cyclical farm payments, would total about $11.5 billion under the US proposal, "a $5 billion reduction," Portman said.
The G20 group of developing countries led by Brazil and India also need to "step up to the plate," Portman said. The alliance has come forward with a proposal that lets major developing countries "off the hook" in terms of opening their markets to more foreign farm goods, he said.
Farm negotiators meet in Geneva Monday to continue the talks. Portman and US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns will attend a ministers meeting there scheduled for Wednesday.
AFP from Beijing says: Chinese President Hu Jintao today called for progress in talks on freeing up global trade ahead of a crucial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Hong Kong in December.
Hu called on the WTO's 148 member-countries to "display greater political sincerity and demonstrate the necessary flexibility to vigorously push forward the Doha round" of trade talks that started four years ago.
He was speaking days after the United States and European Union again failed to reach a deal on cutting farm subsidies, a major stumbling block.
Poor countries and activists charge that the subsidies wealthy nations pay their farmers increase global poverty by driving down agricultural prices to levels at which developing- country farmers cannot compete.
British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said Friday that London and Washington would continue to push for progress on farm sector reforms.