EU rounds on critics over stalled WTO talks

Original Publication Date: 
16 November, 2005
STRASBOURG (AFP) - The European Union rounded on critics of its hardline stance on farm aid in embattled world trade talks, saying they should spend less time "finger-pointing" and more effort seeking compromise.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said the 25-nation bloc will not accept being lectured at -- and reiterated that it has no plan for a new offer on agricultural subsidies.

The World Trade Organization is battling to avoid disaster at a crunch mid-December ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, which aims to finalize an ambitious accord on breaking down world trade barriers.

But pressure is growing on the EU to end generous aid to farmers enshrined in its long-controversial Common Agricultural Policy, which critics say outrageously distorts competition from less developed countries.

On Tuesday EU trade chief Peter Mandelson singled out criticism from Asian-Pacific leaders over Europe's attitude in world trade talks, after they urged the EU to make deeper cuts in farm subsidies.

"I regret that some countries represented at APEC seem more interested in orchestrating the media than orchestrating the negotiations," said Mandelson, referring to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

"I think it is better for APEC to use its gathering to create a platform for negotiation than for finger-pointing," he said.

Amid mounting frustration with the EU, trade ministers from the 21-member APEC grouping were meeting in Busan, South Korea to draw up a strong statement calling for concessions from all nations.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that a better EU offer on farm aid was "crucial" to success at the December 13-18 WTO meeting.

US Trade Representative Rob Portman also placed the onus on Europe for a breakthrough. "This is a once in a generation opportunity," said Portman in Beijing. "And if we allow this to go by, we miss an opportunity."

But Mandelson repeated that the EU did not plan to make a further offer on agriculture before the mid-December WTO meeting in Hong Kong.

"I do not believe it will be helpful to the (WTO) talks to make a further offer on agriculture, because this would simply further unbalance the negotiations," he said.

EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso also rebuffed critics of the bloc's WTO stance.

"Europe does not need more lectures from countries who close their markets to the poorest, indeed in some cases who keep tariffs on agricultural products higher than our own."

Mandelson declined to name the APEC countries he was accusing of "finger-pointing", but he warned Asian countries to be wary of falling into line behind harsh criticism of the EU.

"There seems to be an attempt going on to roll over APEC members and drive them in one direction. This will not help build consensus ahead of Hong Kong," he said.

Aid charity Oxfam added to the pressure on the EU. "The EU has to cut its tariffs, cut its subsidies, and allow developing countries the freedom to pursue their own trade policies," said Luis Morago of Oxfam International.

"It's not that hard. How much longer do we have to wait?"

Oxfam also warned that a failure to tear down trade barriers at next month's World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Hong Kong could further entrench poverty in Africa.

Oxfam said in a report entitled "Africa and the Doha Round," that the current global trade arrangement has consigned the world's poorest continent to perpetual dependence, and the situation would worsen if the talks fail.

In order to give Africa a level trading ground, the key issues of agricultural subsidy, non-agricultural market access, preferential trade agreements, should be addressed, the report added.

"As a result of unfair trade rules and falling commodity prices, Africa has suffered terms-of-trade losses and increasing marginalization," the report said.

If the talks fail, "Africa could get poorer as a result," Elizabeth Mueni, Oxfam's trade policy advisor, told a press conference in Nairobi.

In addition, she called the big trading nations to understand Africa's position at the landmark at the talks.

"To avoid another failure ... the rich countries will need to be more accommodative to African and other developing countries' positions in Hong Kong," she added.

But she regretted positions already taken by rich nations.

"The direction the current negotiations have taken do not reflect a development agenda for many African countries... The agenda has been hijacked by rich nations who are more concerned what is in it for them," Mueni added.

The London-based group said Africa, home to about 800 million people, was the only continent to have grown poorer since 1979 and blamed intransigence by mainly United States and European Union on farm subsidies.

"By many accounts, Africa faces many challenges under the current system of trade rules," the report added.

"What is being offered now will hurt Africa, not help it," Mueni added.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair used a keynote speech in London Monday night to press both the EU and the United States to "go further" on agriculture to make a success of the Hong Kong meeting.

Blair -- whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency -- was in particular targeting French resistance to CAP reform.