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EU negotiator says WTO talks in trouble
Updated: 2005-12-17 10:27

HONG KONG - Global trade talks slid closer to failure Saturday over the issue of protection for poor farmers. The EU's chief negotiator said the talks were "going backwards" ! an ominous development that could damage the credibility of the World Trade Organization itself.

South Korean protesters have their heads shaved outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong in continuing protest Friday Dec. 16, 2005 against the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference in this former British colony. The activists have been holding daily protests against WTO's trade liberalization. [AP]

Delegates from the WTO's 149 member nations tried to hash out a draft agreement on Saturday that likely will be their last chance to reach compromises on a slew of thorny issues. But so far, the negotiations have been virtually fruitless.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the talks will become more intense before the strict Sunday deadline. "There is always a cranky phase," she said. "Most of the business is done in the last 48 hours."

South Korean protesters ! the most militant of the 10,000 who have come to Hong Kong hoping to block a WTO agreement ! shaved their heads, threw eggs and spray painted graffiti on the U.S. Consulate General building and briefly scuffled with police on Friday.

Tourists from mainland China also added a new stop to their sightseeing tours in Hong Kong this week: gawking at the WTO protesters. The demonstrations are curious spectacles for the mainlanders, whose Communist government is highly sensitive about such displays and often cracks down on them.

Previous trade-liberalization talks in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003 and Seattle in 1999 collapsed in disarray. Another failure could seriously undermine the WTO's goal of forging a global free trade agreement by the end of 2006, already two years later than originally planned.

Much of the blame for the lack of progress has been pinned on the EU, which has refused to further reduce trade barriers protecting its farming market ! a key demand of poorer nations that depend heavily on agricultural exports.

But EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said the 25-nation bloc has working hard to broker a deal, and faulted developing nations ! particularly India and Brazil ! for not agreeing to lower their tariffs on industrial goods and services.

"It is hard to see where progress can be achieved in Hong Kong if the talks continue in this direction," Mandelson said. "The level of ambition, if anything, is going backwards."

Late on Friday, WTO chief Pascal Lamy began circulating a draft of the agriculture section of a final agreement. The draft text, obtained by The Associated Press, suggested 2010 as a date for ending all government payments to domestic producers to promote exports.
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