France said Monday that 20 European nations have rejected the latest World Trade Organization proposals for a global trade deal, saying they would be too damaging to European farming.
"We prefer there is no agreement rather than a bad agreement," French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier said, after 20 of the EU's 27 farm ministers met in Brussels to discuss the WTO's compromise proposals put forward 10 days ago. The EU ministers' reactions highlighted the divide between the WTO's rich and poor nations, which have failed in recent months to resolve any of their biggest differences.
"What we want to say all together is that last paper is unacceptable. It is even more unbalanced than previous papers," Barnier said. The wholesale rejection of the 20 nations left little doubt that drastic changes were necessary to salvage a trade deal.
Britain was the only major European trade power that did not attend the meeting.
The WTO's chief farm negotiator, who drafted the proposal, conceded that thorny issues such as cuts in U.S. farm subsidies and EU tariffs for products such as beef and dairy would be left for countries to hammer out when talks "reach the endgame."
But Barnier insisted that farming had been unfairly targeted within the global package. "It is totally unbalanced between concessions that would be made and other issues like services, industry or geographical indications, where we see no progress," he said.
The EU's executive body, the European Commission, negotiates on behalf of the 27 member states, but it is not expected to go against the wishes of such a large majority of nations.
Subsidies to farmers and tariffs on imports in wealthier nations — and barriers to manufacturing imports in major developing nations such as China, India and Brazil — have been at the heart of the stalemate in the WTO's long-struggling Doha round of trade talks. The talks were launched in 2001 with the goal of adding billions of dollars to global commerce and lifting millions of people worldwide out of poverty.
For consumers around the world, a successful trade agreement could mean cheaper prices for groceries and manufactured goods. For businesses, a deal could provide a safeguard for continued trade expansion amid signs of a global economic slowdown. Poorer countries, meanwhile, are hoping to spur their own economic development by securing cuts in U.S. aid to American farmers of cotton, corn, soybean, wheat and other crops.
Key in the negotiations — and the source of so much dispute — is that any global deal must be agreed on by consensus and will be legally binding on all countries. Those failing to live up to their commitments could be hauled before the WTO's dispute body, where billions of dollars in sanctions can be awarded.