France says 20 EU states oppose WTO farm plan
By Yves Clarisse
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Twenty European Union countries are opposed to compromise proposals on agriculture floated by a World Trade Organisation mediator as part of a bid to rescue global trade talks, France said on Monday.
But EU trade chief Peter Mandelson shrugged off the criticism and said he still had the backing of the bloc.
"What is being prepared is a bad deal," French Farm Minister Michel Barnier said after farm ministers of 20 of the 27 EU member states met in Brussels.
"We prefer no deal to a bad deal."
Britain, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Malta -- many of them pro-free trade countries -- did not attend the meeting.
The plan drawn up by the chairman of the agricultural negotiations at the WTO would require the EU to go further than it originally planned with cuts to the bloc's import tariffs for farm products.
Last week, the executive European Commission said the farm proposals were credible but lacked balance when considered alongside other core areas of the WTO negotiations such as industrial goods or services, where the EU has seen little progress with its ambitions for new market openings.
France has repeatedly opposed the kind of concessions in agriculture that Mandelson has said he is willing to consider if other WTO members make similar sacrifices.
France is the single biggest beneficiary of the EU's farm subsidies, worth more than 40 billion euros ($58.5 billion) a year in total.
Barnier also said several European heads of state and government had written to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, warning him against accepting the proposals.
Trade ministers from around the world are expected to meet in March or April in a last-gasp bid to strike a deal over the WTO's Doha round of free trade negotiations, launched in 2001.
After that the round risks further years of delay or outright collapse as the United States heads into presidential elections, followed by the start of a new administration.
Mandelson met EU foreign ministers in Brussels and told Reuters afterwards he was unaware of more countries joining France and other pro-farm states, such as Ireland and Poland, which have longed criticized his position in the negotiations.
"There are one or two member states who have said throughout that anything we do on agriculture is unacceptable but I didn't hear any new additions," he said.
"As I made clear, the text in agriculture is a good basis for further negotiations but there are a couple of aspects of it which are not acceptable to us and we will argue strongly for changes," Mandelson said.
(writing by William Schomberg, editing by Mark John and Mary Gabriel)