GENEVA — Ministers and top industry officials from the West African countries of Mali, Chad, Benin and Burkina Faso told U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman here Thursday that they need a solution on the issue of cotton subsidies between now and the Hong Kong trade summit in December, or the key session of the Doha Round would be in jeopardy.

Asked about the meeting, Portman said: “I told them Hong Kong is very much in their interests. In order for them to get significant gains and access actually through — trade distorting subsidies being eliminated and reduced, export subsidies being eliminated — we need Hong Kong to be successful, and there’s an agreement on that. It’s in both of our interests to have this move forward; otherwise, where are we?”

Portman was in Geneva with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns for talks with a key group — the European Union, Brazil, India and Australia — in a bid to secure a breakthrough in the bogged agriculture talks. However, those discussions went nowhere after the European Union failed to come forward with a market access offer to its lucrative but highly sheltered agricultural market.

“There was not only a lack of proposal, but a seeming lack of urgency despite the fact we are facing this deadline in Hong Kong,” Portman said. For the Doha talks to be completed by the end of next year, “we have to unlock these discussions on agriculture,” he said.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said, “This is not an agriculture-only round and the EU will not be its only banker….We need closure on agriculture. But let me be clear that we also need clear evidence of progress before Hong Kong in industrial products and services.”

On Wednesday, the influential, Brazilian-led G20 group, which includes India and China, promised to back the poor African countries in their quest.

The African delegation also stressed the need for the U.S. and other rich countries to provide funding until the domestic subsidies, which delegates claim are devastating their cotton producers, are phased out. Failure to address the demands of the cotton countries contributed to the collapse of the last WTO summit in Cancún, Mexico, in September 2003.

This story first appeared in the October 21, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Portman said the meeting with the West Africans was “very timely because last night, as we were sleeping, the Senate passed the [phase-out of the] Step 2 program out of committee, which is something I have been pushing hard for.” That cotton subsidy program is being eliminated after the World Trade Organization ruled it was an unfair trade practice.

In the WTO-sponsored talks, the U.S. has proposed slashing domestic farm subsidies by 60 percent and for all export subsidies to be eliminated by 2010.

In a conference call, Portman said, “The failure of the EU to put a real market access proposal forward puts the potential benefits of Doha at risk. Hong Kong is at risk and the round is at risk, so it’s time to move. The time is now.”

European Commission President José Barroso was in Washington this week, stressing the need to move talks ahead in areas such as services and development, and not to focus solely on agriculture.

“These are all very important issues to us and we are perfectly willing to engage in the discussion of rules, and also development and trade facilitation,” Portman said on the call. “The problem is that this round from its inception has had agriculture as a centerpiece and the EU and the U.S., and other WTO members, cannot wish that away.”

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