WTO Ministers Struggle Over Farm Subsidies

Ministers from the 146 members of the World Trade Organization (search) negotiated into early morning Sunday as they tried to find glimmers of agreement on a free-trade declaration.

Governments are sticking to their positions in the tricky area of how to reduce subsidies and tariffs on farm products, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told a late-night news conference.

"Clearly if this situation persists, it will be impossible to reach agreement," Rockwell said.

Ministers spent several hours commenting on a draft declaration produced by the conference chairman, Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez (search). The document is supposed to pave the way for negotiations that will produce a binding treaty on liberalizing international trade by the end of next year.

Developing countries said Derbez' proposal doesn't go far enough because it sets no date for the elimination of all subsidies paid on agricultural goods destined for export.

The proposal "has arbitrarily disregarded views and concerns expressed by us," said Indian Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley (search).

"The document is very far from addressing the points we wanted," said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (search), speaking only for his country. "I think we have a lot of negotiation ahead of us."

But the European Union said it thought the proposal already "crosses several red lines," especially on export subsidies. Brussels has agreed to drop payments on products that are of interest to developing countries but has refused to consider complete elimination.

"We see some light, much shadow and many gray areas which we have to tackle," said EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler (search).

In a statement, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick (search) said there were "positive elements and there are other elements we will work to improve and clarify." He did not elaborate.

Developing countries also were upset that the draft proposes beginning talks in two new areas: improving cross-border transportation procedures and transparency in the awarding of government contracts.

A decision on how to start negotiations in the contentious are of investment rules would follow, while the possibility of negotiations on competition policy have effectively been abandoned.

The WTO's Rockwell said positions were still far apart on this issue, with the European Union and Japan determined to push ahead while poor nations led by Malaysia and India refuse to consider starting the talks.

"The room for maneuver when you have positions polarized in this way is somewhat constrained," he acknowledged.

The five-day meeting was supposed to finish Sunday, though the last WTO ministerial meeting, which launched the current round of talks, overran by a day.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters opposed to the WTO gathered at barricades set up near the meeting's site. They threw feces at police but dispersed peacefully after several hours.