Time is Running Out!
Frustration mounts as the EU is blamed for stalling critical agriculture talks
WASHINGTON, DC – 10/25/05 – US Trade Representative Rob Portman has warned that time is running out for success at a crucial December World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Hong Kong and insisted that the European Union (EU) put forward an ambitious proposal for cutting agricultural tariffs.
"They have nothing to offer," Portman said at a press conference late last week in Geneva. "There was not only a lack of a proposal but a seeming lack of urgency despite the fact that we are facing this deadline in Hong Kong."
According to the USTR, “unless we see progress soon, it will be very difficult to envision a successful Hong Kong meeting and a successful completion of the round at the end of 2006."
He said he expected the EU would present a market access proposal within a week. "The responsibility at this point rests squarely with the European Union," he said.
Portman and US Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns had been meeting over two days with their counterparts from the EU, Australia, Brazil, and India in a group called the Five Interested Parties, or FIPS, to make progress in the long-stalled WTO negotiations, also known as the Doha Development Agenda.
"We are now down to days," said Johanns. "If something isn't put together by the end of this month, then I do really believe that this Doha Round is in real jeopardy. Certainly the Hong Kong meeting would be in jeopardy."
The European Union has drawn an extraordinary amount of invective from other sources as well for allegedly stalling the talks, although the 25-nation bloc blamed other countries for failing to make concessions in areas other than agriculture, such as trade in services.
"The EU are the ones putting the [Doha] round under threat, and developing countries will suffer most," said Mark Vaile, Australia's trade minister, according to wire service reports from Geneva.
Vaile’s comments were underscored by Crawford Falconer, the New Zealand ambassador leading the agricultural negotiations, who has warned that he only has until next week to put together a draft agreement that would be ready in time for the upcoming ministerial meeting in Hong Kong December 13-18.
"The process is on life support right now," Falconer told reporters. "It's probably another 10 days before the doctor decides to switch it off or not.”
Politically difficult agriculture issues have stalled the Doha negotiations almost since they were launched in 2001.
On October 10, aiming to break the agriculture deadlock, the US put forward a proposal to cut the allowed level of US spending on domestic support for farmers by 60%. The offer was conditioned on having ambitious offers in turn from the EU and others on cutting agricultural tariffs, an issue called market access.
Agricultural tariffs worldwide average 62%, with many higher than 100%. Portman said any proposal for cutting tariffs requires at least low rates for developed countries and reductions for developing countries from the rates actually applied, not just from the higher allowed, or bound, levels.
He praised proposals from Australia and the G-20 group of developing countries for minimizing the number of politically sensitive agricultural products that would have exceptions from tariff cuts.
For those few products any imports entering a market in excess of what is called a tariff-rate quota (TRQ) would be subject to higher tariffs.
The G-20 is a group of developing countries that share a special interest in agriculture, the central issue of the Doha Development Agenda. The group was established on August 20, 2003, in the final stages of the preparations for the fifth ministerial conference of the WTO, held in Cancun, Mexico.
The US proposal would cap the number of products any country could identify as sensitive at 1% – about 15 products for the US. The G-20 has proposed caps of 1% for developed countries and 1.5% for developing countries.
The most-recent EU proposal would cap about 160 “sensitive” sensitive products at a rate of 8%.
Portman indirectly acknowledged the political division in Europe, where France has withdrawn its support for the EU position in the WTO agricultural negotiations, which the French assert already exceeds the negotiating mandate.
"While I do empathize with their situation, I must say that we all face domestic pressure, all of us," Portman said. "And we have to stand up to it. And there is just too much at stake not to."
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