Geneva: An acrimonious start to the mini-ministerial at Geneva on Thursday saw developing countries accusing rich nations of shirking their duties even as the Europeans publicly split ranks over the issue of cuts to farm tariffs.
"Somehow the gaps don't seem to diminish," Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim told reporters after a meeting of the G-20 ministers. "If anything, if I look backwards, maybe to two or three months ago... I have the impression that the gaps have widened, or at least become more rigid."
Over the next few days, more than 60 ministers are meeting in Geneva in a bid to arrive at an agreement that would bring the Doha round of global trade talks to a successful conclusion. Most ministers stressed that time was running out to complete the round.
In what would appear to be a move to break the impasse, EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said the 25-nation bloc was "prepared, if the circumstances are right, significantly to improve our offer in agriculture market access, moving towards, and close to, what the G-20 have asked for." The EU's offer, so far, is well below the 54 per cent demanded by the G-20, led by Brazil and India.
The initiative immediately drew fire from the French trade minister Christine Lagarde, who said that Mandelson had no authorization to improve upon Europe's existing offer of a 39 per cent cut in allowed levels of farm tariffs. Austrian agriculture minister Josef Proell said moving toward position held by the G-20 on the issue, "is not possible for EU farmers." Austria currently holds the EU presidency.
The French and Austrian objections drew support from the Irish as well, who are worried about the impact on their beef industry. Irish minister Coughlan insisted that Mandelson is already at the limit of his negotiating mandate and that, in her view, no trade deal would be better than a bad trade deal.
With the Europeans scoring points off each other, India and Brazil asked wealthy countries to take cognisance of the fact that the Doha round of talks were established specifically to address the needs of developing countries.
Director-General of the WTO, and former EU Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy had warned Wednesday that the most important moves would have to be in the area of subsidy cuts in order to ensure a flowing trade in agriculture and industrial products.
Lamy urged the US, the EU and the developing world, headed by Brazil and India, to overcome their differences and make concessions. A successful outcome to the talks is critical, for US president George W Bush's mandate to negotiate a trade deal expires next year, making future negotiations all the more harder.
According to a timetable set by the 150 WTO members, the talks must be concluded with a wide-ranging free trade agreement in place by the end of the year. Negotiators, accordingly, must reach agreements on agriculture and non-agricultural market access issues.
The end of June is the latest deadline set by WTO members to reach a precise formulas for cutting subsidies and tariffs. An April 30 deadline has already been missed owing to sharp differences between WTO members. Observers have warned that any further protraction of the Doha Talks would impair the world's confidence in multilateral trade negotiations.