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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Treaty Hopes Bleak as WTO Convenes

HONG KONG -- Trade negotiators gathered for World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong conceded Monday that prospects for progress toward a global free trade treaty were bleak, with rich countries and the developing world still at an impasse over agriculture.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson bluntly said a breakthrough at the six-day meeting that starts Tuesday was "not possible," and that the 149 member countries should instead strive to make headway on formulas for cutting farm tariffs and subsidies, with the goal of drawing up an outline for a deal by the first quarter of 2006.

"There's simply too little on the table to negotiate about in Hong Kong," Mandelson told reporters. He said his objective for the six-day gathering was to "find the common ground on the building blocks" in key areas of agriculture, services and manufacturing trade.

The meeting in Hong Kong , itself a citadel to free trade, was meant to wrap up the so-called "Doha round" of WTO negotiations. But the talks have been stalemated for months, with developing countries saying that offers by the EU, United States and other rich countries to dismantle trade barriers are inadequate.

A draft text for an agreement released by WTO chief Pascal Lamy disclosed wide differences between members across a wide array of sectors.

"Now, it is clear that unless a miracle occurs -- and I'm not even sure what kind of miracle -- we won't have a final deal ... in Hong Kong," Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, said Monday.

Amorim accused wealthy industrialized nations of sacrificing the interests of 70 percent of the developing world -- subsistence farmers -- for the sake of a tiny segment of their own populations.

"Who are the farmers of France? It's the people who own little farms and make Camembert cheese or who sell Bordeaux," he said.

For poor countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, selling exports of commodities like grain and sugar to the industrialized world are the key to economic growth and development.

Dashing hopes for concessions, Mandelson reiterated Monday that the EU would not move beyond the average 46 percent cut in farm tariffs it offered in October until other countries budge on reducing barriers on services and manufactured goods.

But he said he was receptive to offers from developing countries, led by India and Brazil, on non-farm trade areas.

The WTO gatherings, normally held every other year, tend to be a flashpoint for violence, often when activists are confronted by riot police.

Alarmed by the prospect of as many as 10,000 protesters on the streets, voicing opposition to the WTO and other symbols of globalization, Hong Kong authorities set up elaborate security precautions, blocking off access to roads near the conference site, setting up barricades, enclosing pedestrian walkways in nets, and even gluing bricks into the sidewalks to prevent protesters from pulling them up and throwing them.