EU shoots down French trade-negotiation proposal
LUXEMBOURG, Oct 18 (AFP) - European Union foreign ministers rejected a French proposal Tuesday to require EU negotiators in world trade talks to constantly secure approval from member states for their bargaining stance, officials said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking after emergency ministerial talks in Luxembourg called by Paris, said there was “no consensus” for the French suggestion.
“There is a mandate … within that mandate it is for the commission to negotiate,” he said, referring to a framework set by the 25-nation bloc’s governments for EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.
“No negotiation is ever possible if you have to negotiate not only with the people in the room but also with some other committee in permanent session,” he added.
“That is not the way the EU has done it in the past, and it is not the way it will be doing it in the future … In fact, it makes negotiations impossible and it renders your negotiations powerless.”
France had called for any new proposal by EU negotiators on farm trade to be submitted to a “consultation group” to ensure its compatibility with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, of which France is the main beneficiary.
Paris called for talks here after accusing Mandelson of overstepping his brief last week when he proposed deep cuts in EU farm subsidies.
Tensions flared Tuesday between EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson and France over his recent proposal to cut EU farm subsidies in crunch world trade talks ahead of a looming December deadline.
Despite the French ire, Mandelson claimed that an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers here had been “overwhelmingly supportive” of the European Commission, which negotiates international trade deals on behalf of all member states.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, urged the EU ministers to bolster their common position for the current round of world trade talks.
“What we have to do this morning, I believe, is to work very hard to reach … unanimous conclusions,” Straw said.
The proposal came during WTO negotiations in Geneva aimed at reaching a framework accord to reduce barriers to global commerce by December.
France wants to be kept better informed on concessions Mandelson makes on trade in agriculture and has called for technical briefings to evaluate his proposals in the future.
However, Mandelson warned that the current round of WTO trade talks, launched in the Qatari capital Doha in late 2001, would grind to a halt if experts had to pore over the details of his proposals.
“If taken literally that procedure would stop the Doha talks in their tracks,” Mandelson told a news conference during the meeting.
Although he said the discussions here with foreign ministers “did clear the air”, France was unsatisfied with his showing.
French European affairs minister Catherine Colonna said his explanation of his proposal during the meeting remained “imprecise” and insisted that “technical expertise is necessary to see if the mandate was respected.”
She said she had asked him to “give proof that the offer he made is in conformity with his mandate.”
France was out in strength at the talks. In addition to Colonna the meeting was attended by foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, farm minister Dominique Bussereau and trade minister Christine Lagarde.
Mandelson frayed French nerves after saying the European Union was ready to cut its farm subsidies by 70 percent and to reduce EU customs duties on farm goods by up to 50 percent.
The commissioner had to put his chips on the bargaining table last week after Washington also proposed making deep cuts in its farm subsidies.
The US has since said that Mandelson’s offer did not go far enough.
US trade representative Rob Portman meanwhile kept up pressure on the Europeans for even deeper cuts in farm subsidies. “There is a lot of responsibility right now that rests on the European Union to do the right thing,” he told the BBC.
On the defensive in the face of his critics, Mandelson warned against watering down the EU offer on farm subsidies.
“Surely it would be the wrong reaction, and a terrible mistake for the EU, at the first sign of serious movement in the talks — movement that we have been calling for — to lose confidence and pull in our horns,” he said.
“I hope that is not the message of our meeting today,” he added.
EU farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, who also faced a French grilling, was confident that the commission had been in its right when it made the offer to cut farm subsidies.
“I’m so happy … to have the opportunity to explain in details the mandate,” she said. “We do our best to defend the European interests,” she added.
The Luxembourg gathering comes at a crucial moment in the negotiations, with WTO members due to hold further meetings in Geneva on Wednesday and Thursday.
An accord on cutting farm aid is broadly considered pivotal for agreement on the outlines of a multilateral trade deal at a Hong Kong WTO ministerial conference in mid-December.
Failure to forge an accord in Hong Kong could very well derail the current Doha round, which is supposed to be completed by the end of 2006.
Subject: French news