WTO draft lifts idea of rewriting U.S. farm bill

Saturday, September 13, 2003

CANCUN, Mexico -- A key mediator was drafting a proposal Friday to slash rich countries' farm subsidies and open poor countries' markets, as a growing alliance of farming nations demanded Europe cut payments to farmers and the United States rewrite its farm bill.

Officials said the facilitator on the key agriculture negotiations, Singapore trade minister George Yeo, would present a draft document by today that would move arguments dominated by emotion into number-crunching that could have a major effect on the world economy.

U.S. and European negotiators appeared increasingly frustrated that the alliance of more than 20 developing countries, which represents most of the world's population, has dominated discussions at the World Trade Organization meeting, where 146 countries are trying to open global markets.

They said demands by the Group of 21 that rich nations stop subsidizing their farmers -- something that makes it hard for others to compete in a global economy -- must be accompanied by a willingness by the poor nations to open their own markets to foreign products.

During a meeting between the G-21 and the United States, the poorer nations limited themselves mainly to criticism of U.S. and European farm policy, U.S. chief agriculture negotiator Allen Johnson said.

"When it came to 'What are you ready to offer?' we really didn't get any substantive response," he said.

Brazil, which has been speaking for the G-21, didn't immediately respond to the accusations, but put out a statement saying negotiators should "not direct our energies at attacking countries or groups of countries."

There were also differences between the United States and the European Union, although they made a joint proposal on the issues last month. U.S. officials said Europe wasn't aggressive enough on trade opening, and EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said Europe wanted the United States to cut subsidies more and reform its farm bill -- something G-21 nations demand as well.

Negotiators cautioned that if the standoff continued, the talks could break down, as they did in 1999 in Seattle. That would make it almost impossible for the WTO to meet its deadline of a treaty by the end of next year, and thwart efforts to increase regulation of world trade.

"Without flexibility on the other side, these talks will get very difficult," said the European Union's agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler.

Protests continued around the convention center where the meeting was being held, with Italian activists splattering themselves in red paint and members of the aid group Oxfam dressing as world leaders and dining on subsidized food.

Three protesters scaled a crane near the meeting site, took off their clothes and strung up a giant banner reading: "Everybody leave!" They said they would remain in their perch until delegates heed their advice.

A major demonstration was scheduled for Saturday, when activists from around the world planned to march toward the meeting site, which is guarded by thousands of riot police. A similar march on Wednesday led to several hours of violence between police and protesters.

As Yeo prepared his draft proposal, negotiators said he was consulting primarily with the United States, the European Union and the G-21, still widely known by that name even though it has now picked up more than 21 members.

While American and European officials denounced the group as obstinate, they also acknowledged its power. It includes China, India and Brazil and represents more than half of the world's population.

"We are not so arrogant to believe that in the WTO it is enough if the United States and the European Union cook up the deal," Fischler said.

With their growing populations and economic clout -- Mexico, the meeting's host, has the world's ninth-largest economy -- developing nations have an ever-greater profile in the negotiations.

"We have become much wiser," said Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's minister for international trade and investment. "No more are we going to sit in the corridor."

U.S. and EU negotiators denied reports that they were trying to pick off members of the G-21 with the promise of bilateral trade deals. "We don't do that," Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Peter Allgeier said.

Officials said once Yeo's document was distributed, serious line-by-line negotiations would begin on exactly what subsidies and tariffs are eliminated, and which markets are opened in what ways.

But protesters demanded that delegates break off their talks and simply, as the banner read, go home.

"To those who are negotiating, we want to say they don't have our mandate," said protester Brian Ashley, of Capetown, South Africa. "The WTO must simply go."

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