GENEVA, Oct 20 (AFP): World Trade Organisation heavyweights were keeping up the hunt today for ways to solve enduring splits between rich and poor that are threatening efforts to break down barriers to global commerce.
The 148 trading nations in the WTO are facing mounting pressure as they struggle to prepare for a looming summit in Hong Kong that is meant to cap their Doha Round trade talks, launched in 2001.
Top trade officials from Australia, Brazil, the European Union, India and the United States kicked off negotiations behind closed doors Wednesday and were set to continue Thursday morning, before being joined by trade ministers from Canada, China, Japan and a handful of other member states.
Rich and poor countries have faced off at the WTO over how to advance the Doha Round, which aims to produce a treaty on cutting subsidies, tariffs and other trade barriers and using commerce to give developing nations a boost.
WTO members have set the goal of approving the outlines of the treaty at their December 13-18 Hong Kong meeting, before finalising the deal in 2006 -- two years later than originally planned.
West African nations have warned that Hong Kong could go the same way, unless rich countries halt subsidies which they blame for pricing their impoverished cotton industry-a pillar for many of their economies-out of world markets.
The West Africans are spotlighting Washington's payouts to the US cotton industry, which were ruled illegal by the WTO earlier this year but which are still in place.
Reuters adds: Negotiations on a global trade pact risk collapse, the United States and the European Union both warned yesterday, after trading powers failed to resolve their differences over farm reform.
Agriculture lies at the heart of the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) Doha Round and the pressure has been on the European Union since the United States last week seized the initiative with an offer of sweeping subsidy cuts.
But with France digging in against concessions, the EU has struggled to produce a plan for opening up its lucrative farm market that comes anywhere near meeting the demands of the United States and others.
A spokesman for EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson acknowledged that the EU had put nothing new on the table and said without movement soon there will be no chance of a global deal by a December deadline.
Ministers from the full 148-state World Trade Organisation (WTO) must approve a blueprint at a conference in less than two months time to keep alive the round, which aims to boost the world economy and lift millions out of poverty.
The EU, the United States, Brazil, India and Australia met in a bid to bridge differences, many of them over farm trade.
Mandelson went into the talks under heavy pressure from Paris, the main beneficiary of EU farm subsidies.
The United States last week offered to lower a ceiling for its lavish farm subsidies by 60 per cent. Washington says the EU must respond with deep cuts to farm import tariffs.
Meanwhile, US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns expressed disappointment yesterday in farm trade talks with key members of the World Trade Organisation, saying success in the global negotiations "clearly rests" with the European Union.
Johanns and US Trade Representative Rob Portman attended a Geneva meeting that also included Brazil, India and Australia. The EU was singled out by Johanns as the reason the meeting made no progress.
Johanns said the EU and Washington were "far apart on many issues" such as market access, tariffs and export subsidies for agricultural products.