WASHINGTON – President Bush and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (search) discussed their mutual interest in opening up world trade markets for agriculture and other products Tuesday.
Bush told reporters at the end of the closed-door White House meeting that the pair focused on peace and prosperity. He said they talked about what they could do to advance the trade talks within the 148-member World Trade Organization (search). These talks have been held up largely by disputes over farm subsidies.
"We had a good and frank discussion on that," Bush said. "There's no question we share the same objective."
Organization members are supposed to agree at a December meeting in Hong Kong on an outline for a global trade deal to boost the world's economy by lowering trade barriers across all sectors, with particular emphasis on developing countries, for whom farm subsidies are particularly sensitive.
Poor countries say the subsidies to farmers in rich nations hurt their farmers by driving international prices to artificially low levels, allowing producers from rich countries to dump their cheap farm produce on the world market.
"We have a common interest in opening up markets," Barroso said. "We wanted to have ambitious and balanced results on agriculture, but not only on agriculture."
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson (search) said last week the EU was ready to cut "trade distorting" agricultural support by 70 percent, provided others made similar efforts. Barroso was expected to tell Bush he supported Mandelson's approach at the White House meeting, but he didn't tell reporters whether he did so.
The two leaders did not take any questions.
Mandelson also offered to reduce the number of sensitive products that have higher import tariffs, such as beef and poultry, but U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said his offer "doesn't come close to meeting the expectations that all of us have on market access."
Portman said last week that if the EU should fail to make deeper farm tariff trade cuts, "we will not be able to have a successful" meeting in Hong Kong.
There is growing opposition, led by France, to any offer by the European Union that would cut farm subsidies beyond what national governments have agreed.
As Bush and Barroso were meeting, foreign ministers of the 25-nation EU were in Luxembourg trying to resolve their differences.
"The timing of the meeting is designed to give Barroso some ammunition to stand firm and drag the more recalcitrant members along as he tries to stretch the limits of his negotiating mandate," said Robin Niblett, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research group.
He said it also gives the two leaders "a chance to celebrate the practical areas of cooperation" in the field of counterterrorism, such as agreement on airline passenger name-recognition lists.
EU officials said Bush and Barroso would discuss strengthening and expanding democracy in the broader Middle East and North Africa, according to the EU's Web site.
Niblett said the two leaders also could discuss Gaza, where the European Union is expected to play a major role in reconstruction and economic development.
The meeting between Bush and Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister who took the helm of the EU executive branch last year, is the first of its kind since 1989. EU Commission presidents have met with American presidents in the past but as part of delegations led by whichever country holds the rotating six-month EU presidency.
The European Commission runs the EU's day-to-day affairs. It drafts EU laws, ensures they are enacted in each of the 25 member states and represents the union in world trade and other negotiations. Barroso was accompanied to Washington by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's commissioner for external affairs.