HONG KONG, Dec 12 (AFP): Trade ministers meet this week in Hong Kong for talks on a global trade liberalisation deal but deadlock over the key issue of farm subsidies has left the meeting needing little short of a miracle for success.
Expectations for the biennial World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting have been progressively downgraded following months of finger-pointing and arguments between the main protagonists.
The talks were supposed to sign off on an overall agreement whereby developed countries would open up their agriculture markets in return for free access for their industrial goods and services in the developing world.
The European Union, the United States, India, Brazil and Japan have all come up with proposals in the run-up to the six-day meeting that opens Tuesday but they have been unable to break the deadlock.
"It would be a miracle for us to conclude Hong Kong on the basis that we wanted to-which was to get through two thirds of (the negotiations) and only have another third to do next year. I fear we are not going to be that far forward," British Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson said Sunday.
Britain, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has a special responsibility to press ahead as far as possible with talks on the WTO's Doha Round, Johnson said.
He said he was "pessimistic that we will get as far as we wanted to be at Hong Kong but of course Hong Kong is not the end of the round.
"The round is due to complete by the end of 2006 so what we must now do, having recognised that we are not as far forward as we wanted to be, is to use Hong Kong as a springboard for successful conclusions in 2006."
That is a position shared by many coming into the meeting-to get a minimum agreement on the way forward for further talks next year alongside some sort of deal to help the poorest countries benefit from freer trade.
That would prevent a repeat of the debacle at the previous WTO ministerial meeting in the Mexican resort of Cancun in 2003, which ended in acrimony.
The build-up to the Hong Kong talks has been marked by bitter exchanges and growing calls for the European Union to offer bigger cuts in the huge subsidies it gives to its farmers.
The EU commission has offered agricultural tariff cuts of between 35 and 60 per cent, with the overall average to be reduced from 22.8 to 12.2 per cent.
Washington meanwhile has offered cuts of 55 to 90 per cent, contrasting its willingness to bite the bullet with the EU's reluctance to make the hard choices for a global trade accord.
Developing nations have been pressing both the EU and the United States to reduce tariffs and subsidies, arguing that until they do, farmers in poor countries will be unable to compete fairly in world markets.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson robustly defended the EU stance Monday, insisting once again that he would not be offering any new concessions on agriculture at the WTO talks.
"I come to Hong Kong to do business with my partners and I hope that others have come to do business with me," Mandelson told reporters.
"This doesn't mean I will be tabling a new agricultural offer. I don't believe that this is what the round needs now from Europe even if we had the latitude to do so."
The United States has called for all to make compromises but it has warned the EU that without progress on agriculture, the developing world would never embrace change on other fronts.
The WTO was established in 1995 to boost global trade by ending protection as much as possible, overseeing agreed rules through an arbitration system when necessary to provide equal market access.
Based in Geneva, the WTO now counts 149 members, of whom about three-quarters are developing countries. Saudi Arabia joined Sunday.
The WTO has become a magnet for protests by the anti-globalisation movement and thousands of protesters were scheduled to stage rallies throughout the meeting in Hong Kong.
Fearing a repeat of violence at previous meetings, the authorities in Hong Kong have mobilized a huge security operation, deploying over 9,000 police and sealing off the convention center where delegates are due to meet.
However the first protest on Sunday passed off peacefully.
"Sink the WTO" and "Keep WTO out of agriculture" read many banners as up to 4,000 people, many dressed in colourful costumes, marched through the streets in a carnival-like atmosphere.