The European Union's chief agricultural spokesperson still has hope negotiators can complete a basic agreement on the Doha Round by summer. But those hopes continue to hinge on whether other countries are willing to change their stance.
Speaking at the World Agricultural Forum's 2007 World Congress in St. Louis, Mariann Fischer Boel said the atmosphere surrounding trade talks at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva remains “heavy.” Negotiators have been trying to reach an agreement before President Bush's trade promotion authority expires in July.
“Politically, we have to show we're not quitters,” Boel, the European Economic Union's commissioner for agricultural and rural development, said in her May 9 speech. “We have to stick with it until we can get it resolved.”
The European Union and others have urged the United States to make more reductions in its farm subsidies, saying that even though U.S. farm program payments are expected to be sharply lower over the next few years, they still can move higher if crop prices fall.
Asked in a media briefing if the European Union was willing to make bigger reductions in its trade-distorting subsidies, Boel said that would depend on other offers. “We're willing to go beyond our October 2006 proposal (of a 70-percent reduction) if other countries are willing to contribute, as well.”
The United States proposed a 60-percent reduction in farm program benefits in a Doha Round session in October 2006. But U.S. trade negotiators have said they're unwilling to do more until the EU, India and other countries provide greater market access.
Boel, a farmer and former minister of agriculture in Denmark, said the European Union is doing its part to improve market access, despite U.S. claims that is has been “stonewalling” on the issue.
“The European Union wants this round to be successful, especially for the sake of the developing countries,” she said. “We have proved our commitment to the development again and again in the past through our aid programs, our partnership agreements and preferential trade arrangements such as the ‘Everything But Arms’ agreement in 2001.
“This agreements mean that the 49 poorest countries of the world are allowed access into the European Union with zero duties and zero limitations in the exports. I think this is crucial. We are just now negotiating with the rest of the 82 countries that are not among the poorest, the 36 more wealthy countries. We are close to an agreement comparable to what we have done with the poorest countries.”
As a result, Boel said, the European Union now imports more agricultural products from poor countries than Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan together. “So we think we have shown the way.”
Success in the Doha Round will be built on compromises. “But I think it is important as well that there must be something for everyone in the final compromise,” she said. “We need balance in agriculture and in the non-agricultural products and services. I think the latter have been neglected in the discussions.”
If WTO members can get their minds together politically and strike a balanced overall agreement, Boel said, “then I think we have the possibility of a gain for everybody and success should only be a matter of time.
“On the other hand, some parties set their sights unrealistically high, and there could be a danger we could all go back from these negotiations very disappointed. So I think we should all do an extraordinary effort to complete them.”
U.S. leaders appear to be less optimistic about the prospects for Doha. “Nothing on the table looks very good to us at this point,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said in a telephone conference call May 10. “We're not sure much of anything will happen in the WTO until after the 2008 presidential elections.”
Following her speech at the World Ag Forum Congress, Boel toured a 1,000-sow hog operation and a winery in the St. Louis area. “Sometimes you get all your views from the ministries or government departments,” she noted during the briefing. “I want to get out and see how American farmers think and their views on the farm bill.”