BRUSSELS, Oct 24 (Reuters): European negotiators in strained global trade talks face a week of hard number-crunching as they try to square demands for bigger farm sacrifices with fierce opposition from France to any more concessions.
The United States and other big trading nations are blaming the European Union for an impasse threatening to derail a World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement due in mid-December.
An outline for a WTO deal, which has been four years in the making, must be agreed in less than two months' time, when all 148 member countries meet in Hong Kong.
Brussels must decide how much more it can offer in cuts to the agricultural import tariffs it has used for decades to protect European farmers.
"We're number-crunching to see what we can do, within our mandate," said European Commission agriculture spokesman Michael Mann. "But at some stage everyone needs to get realistic."
Under fire from Paris, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson says the demands of the United States and other countries are "hopelessly over-inflated" and without a breakthrough in the next two weeks the scope of the round will be scaled back.
That would shatter hopes of a bold WTO deal spanning industrial goods and services as well as agriculture, which would boost the world economy and help farmers in developing nations.
The risk of failure in December grew last week after the EU failed to move anywhere near the demands of its partners.
The United States, Australia and Brazil say the EU must at least double its tariff reduction offer to somewhere between the 54 per cent average cut proposed by the G20 developing countries and the 75 per cent sought by the United States.
But the European Commission's room for manoeuvre is severely limited by the terms of its mandate from member states.
France, the staunchest defender of Europe's farm spending of over 40 billion euros ($48 billion) a year, says Brussels has already used up all its negotiating margin and the government is subjecting Mandelson to daily criticism.
The Commission's mandate states Europe's main contribution to the WTO round on agriculture is the reform it carried out in 2003 reform of the bloc's Common Agricultural Policy. The reform shifted most subsidies for European farmers away from trade-distorting payments linked to output.
AFP from London adds: World trade talks, facing a December deadline in Hong Kong, face failure unless all countries involved make an effort, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz said in a newspaper article today.
In an opinion piece in Britain's Financial Times daily Wolfowitz pointed to the central role of the issue of agricultural subsidies in the talks, which are supposed to wrap up at a December 13-18 summit in Hong Kong.
The EU needs to do more on market access to provide significant new trade opportunities for developing countries."
After missing several deadlines in recent years, the talks on freeing up world trade, which were launched in the Qatari capital Doha in 2001, are meant to be largely completed in Hong Kong.
Discussions have so far failed over the questions of agricultural subsidies given in rich countries-notably the United States and the European Union-which developing countries want dropped.