France threatens Doha talks amid food crisis

April 16th, 2008 - 10:46 am ICT by admin  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London/Luxembourg, April 16 (IANS) With only months to go before it takes over the European Union presidency, France has set itself on a potentially confrontational strategy to seek more - rather than less - agricultural subsidies for European countries. The move, which risks pitting France against some leading European partners and Europe against a powerful coalition of emerging economies, became clear after France told a high-level meeting of European agriculture ministers in Luxembourg that the continent needed a protectionist food security strategy in order to face the global food crisis.

Blaming spiralling food costs on “too much trust in the free market”, French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier called upon Europe to resist further cuts in agricultural subsidies - a key demand of India, Brazil and China at ongoing talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva.

“We must not leave the vital issue of feeding people to the mercy of market laws and international speculation,” Barnier said at the meeting of the EU Agricultural and Fisheries Council.

France will hold a European food security conference when it takes over the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU in July.

However, its call for resisting global demands for a cut in agricultural subsidies in wealthy nations - or even seek an increase - is certain to be opposed by its Britain and Scandinavian countries.

The timing of the French move is particularly sensitive for developing countries, coming as it does just when the Doha Development Round of global trade talks are poised on a knife’s edge in Geneva, according to EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

Mandelson, who represents Europe at the talks aimed at laying down rules of global trade, warned Tuesday that countries must try and conclude the negotiations by the end of this year.

The issue of agricultural subsidies is perhaps the most important in the talks.

On the one hand, a powerful grouping of developing countries led by Brazil, China and India are calling upon wealthy countries to cut the multi-billion dollar subsidy to their agricultural sector.

But rich nations - particularly America and European countries - want developing nations to open up their markets to goods manufactured in rich nations.

Disputes over the two issues - agriculture and manufacturing - have stalled progress in the talks named after the Qatari capital that hosted the first talks.

Mandelson warned in Paris Tuesday that if no deal is reached by the end of the year, “I believe that the prospect for the world trade talks will be one of uncertainty, drift and likely failure”.

“These negotiations, and their outcome, their success or their failure, are the most important foreign economic challenge that the EU will face in 2008. And the choice we make in the upcoming negotiations will be very important indeed both in Europe and for the world as a whole,” he said.

“I have no hesitation in saying to you that if we cannot complete the round this year, under President Bush’s watch, 2009 will be a non-negotiation year as the American administration changes in the first half of 2009, and the European commission changes in the second half of 2009,” he noted.

“By the time we get to 2010 or 2011, I think it will be very difficult if not impossible to revive these negotiations,” Mandelson added.

“To complete the final agreement in line with what’s on the table … we need six to eight months’ further negotiations from the time we agree the modalities on industrial and agricultural goods, that means in May. We need an agreement next month,” he said.

“Every week that eats into that six to eight month time will put the outcome in jeopardy. We really are on a knife edge,” he said.

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