WTO Talks, Not Surprisingly, Off To Rocky Start

U.S. comes under heavy attack for not cutting back further on agricultural subsidies.

GENEVA (AP) - The WTO's top official criticized the world's leading trading powers Friday, saying their reluctance to negotiate was putting the prospects of a new global commerce treaty in peril.

''We are putting at risk the future of the Doha round, the WTO, and the multilateral system itself,'' said Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization.

Lamy told negotiators they needed to reach an agreement ''in these coming days'' on cutting tariffs and subsidies in manufactured and farm goods. The WTO says a new trade treaty could lift millions of people worldwide out of poverty, but that now appears to be in serious jeopardy.

''It isn't clear that real negotiations will take place,'' Lamy said.

The United States joined the fray in the contentious talks Friday, accusing the EU, Brazil and India of failing to match U.S. ambition in last-ditch negotiations.

Officials on all sides described a Thursday evening gathering of the organization's biggest powers as a failed exercise, leaving countries no closer to a breakthrough.

The Doha round of negotiations, launched in Qatar's capital in 2001, aims to tear down barriers to trade and add billions of dollars to the world economy, with a particular emphasis on developing countries, who rely heavily on agricultural exports.

Washington has been criticized for its reluctance to improve an offer on cutting government handouts to American farmers, while European countries are being pressed to make deeper cuts in agricultural tariffs.

Both say further cutbacks in farm support programs are dependent on big developing countries such as India and Brazil opening up their markets to foreign competition in industries and services.

''These are real, significant reductions to our farm program,'' U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said of a U.S. proposal made in October.

But he said countering offers have failed to offer any new trade flows, adding that Washington would reject any deal providing ''a clear signal that the WTO is losing its way.''

More than 60 ministers are meeting in Geneva through Sunday to reach agreement on specific formulas for cutting tariffs and subsidies on manufactured and farm goods, with talks already two years behind schedule.

Brazil, the European Union and India are all heavily critical of the United States' hardline stance.

''Much is in the hands of the U.S. and they should make a real offer, to push the process ahead, and so far we haven't seen such a move,'' said Agriculture Minister Juha Korkeaoja of Finland, whose country assumes the rotating presidency of the 25-nation EU on Saturday.

Brazil and India, while also critical of Brussels, said Washington had the primary responsibility now to move the five-year-old talks forward.

''I'm asking the United States and Europe, please tell me how much you are willing to do,'' Indian Trade and Industry Minister Kamal Nath said during a break in talks. ''I don't seem to get an answer.''

Nath repeated threats to leave the talks if the U.S. failed to improve on its offer. His G-20 partner, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, has described the U.S. and EU's approach as ''politically wrong and morally false.''

The European Union seemed the only side prepared to compromise. However, that gesture that was somewhat undermined by divisions within its members over cuts to sensitive farm tariffs.

EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said Thursday the 25-nation bloc was prepared to come close to the demand of developing countries that it cut permitted levels of farm tariffs by 54 percent, even if that was later rejected by member states France and Austria, where farm support programs are a politically sensitive topic.

Brussels, however, does not need a formal mandate from member states to negotiate on trade issues.

''The French are the French,'' Mandelson retorted Friday.

More in Operations