A US gesture to offer free access to its market for near-destitute West African cotton farmers, after an initially cautious welcome, was soon dismissed as an empty gesture.

The EU in turn continued to take flak from the US and the developing world for its massive farm subsidies and high tariffs, seen by many WTO members as the main impediment to a global trade liberalisation deal.

An Australian official expressed concern that the six-day ministerial meeting, which opened on Tuesday, was losing focus. He said delegates needed to concentrate on the core issue of agricultural market access.

"We really need to up the ante on market access," he told AFP.

Too much attention

The Australian official said: "There's too much attention being paid to other issues but the fact remains that poor countries need access to wealthy markets - after all this is supposed to be a development round."

US wants greater market access
for farm good imports into EU

He said there was still a belief that the Hong Kong conference could end on Sunday with a positive outcome. But he said that it would take tough negotiation and more goodwill from all sides.

South Africa said developing countries were being asked to do much more than wealthier nations for the sake of an agreement.

Mandisi Mphahlwa, the trade and industry minister, said: "We have observed quite distinctly that the demands that have been made of us (developing countries) far exceed the willingness to see the levels of adjustment we expect to see in agriculture.

"We are not seeing a balance in what we are expected to do in relation to what developed countries are expected to do."

Difficult decisions

The G20 and the Cairns group of agricultural exporters, which Australia leads, pressed the same point, urging the EU and the US to budge.

"Agriculture is at the centre of this round (of talks) and of the development dividends we seek from it," the two groups said in a statement.

"... the demands that have been made of us (developing countries) far exceed the willingness to see the levels of adjustment we expect to see in agriculture"

Mandisi Mphahlwa,
trade and industry minister,
South Africa

"Those most responsible for such distortions must now face the difficult political decisions to move the round forward. The dynamics of the negotiation require movements by both the EU and the USA. It is time for them to display leadership."

The WTO Doha Round was launched in the Qatari capital in 2001 with the aim of freeing up global trade and specifically helping developing countries.

The talks in Hong Kong were supposed to sign off on the framework for an overall accord, allowing the negotiations to conclude next year on time, but now the most that is hoped for is some deal to help the poorest countries.

While the US is pressing for a 55-90% cut in agricultural import tariffs, the EU has offered reductions in a range of 35 to 60%.

Moral high ground

On farm support, Washington has said it is prepared to cut trade-distorting subsidies by 60% over five years, matched by an EU offer to make a 70% reduction in such assistance.

Throughout the Hong Kong meeting the EU and US have sparred and fought for the moral high ground.

Big protests are expected before
the conference closes on Sunday

On Thursday, Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, stressed again that the bloc had taken the lead on agriculture and it was up to other countries to move. "If these negotiations are going to proceed, we need more on the table," he said.

The US, having insisted that Brussels should match its offers to cut tariffs and subsidies on agriculture, claimed to be at a loss in reply.

Asked to explain Washington's response to the EU position, Rob Portman, the US trade representative, replied: "I was hoping you were going to tell me what the EU strategy was - I can't figure it out."

Portman said he was not hopeful of progress in Hong Kong and another meeting seemed likely, possibly in late March, to push the Doha agenda through.