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World trade talks show little progress

( 2003-09-12 13:41) (Agencies)

World trade talks near the half-way stage on Friday with rich and poor nations expected to be presented with a first attempt at compromise although they remain divided over the core issue of how to slash billions of dollars of subsidies to Western farmers.

The meeting of World Trade Organization (WTO) ministers aims to wrap up an accord by Sunday to revive talks on a new trade deal, which the World Bank says could lift millions of people out of poverty and boost the flagging global economy.

But negotiations have got no further than a standoff between newly assertive developing countries and the European Union and the United States over agricultural commerce.

"Those who subsidize must make a greater effort to level the playing field in international trade and generate opportunities for all," said Argentine chief negotiator Martin Redrado.

His country is part of a new coalition of 21 developing nations, including powerhouses Brazil and India, which are demanding the EU and United States make more concessions on farm trade in return for agreeing to open their own markets.

A deal on agriculture is central to the success of the meeting as developing nations blame the $300 billion in subsidies doled out each year to EU and U.S. farmers as the reason their own farmers are blocked from world markets.

They also want the EU and United States to bring down barriers to food imports.

Ghana's trade minister, Alan Kyeremateng, said rich countries would not be able to speak with moral authority about helping poor states unless they slashed farm subsidies.

"For us in Ghana, the important thing is with agriculture because that fundamentally affects the majority of our population," he told reporters.

Negotiators met late on Thursday for talks on how to bridge the gap on the farm issue. WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said delegations were "playing their poker cards close to their chest" but they will hear proposals from a WTO-appointed mediator for a very preliminary compromise on Friday.

"When you have gaps as wide as we have now it is very difficult to try and find a middle ground around which consensus can be built," Rockwell told reporters.

The farm talks are the toughest part of the negotiations, but other key issues also divide the 146-member WTO.

The EU is pushing hard for guidelines on foreign investment and competition to be grafted into world trade rules, but it has found virtually no allies among the developing nations.

The United States, the EU's ally so far on farm matters, has also expressed doubts on the need for a deal on all these issues.

The street protests which marked the first day of the meeting, including the suicide of a South Korean farmer on Wednesday in protest against the WTO, have died down. But aid groups were still urging the EU and United States to move as much as possible in the direction of developing countries.

"Given the patent unfairness of the rules, anyone who looks into it objectively cannot but be shocked at the way the rules are rigged," said Mary Robinson, head of aid group Oxfam.

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