The six-day meeting beginning on Tuesday is meant to lay the groundwork for a global treaty by the end of 2006 that would cut trade barriers across a wide array of sectors, from agriculture to services, wrapping up the so-called Doha Round of talks.
But an impasse over farm trade has brought the negotiations to a virtual halt, with developing nations accusing the US, EU and other rich economies of not cutting agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies enough, in effect keeping out poorer nations that depend heavily on agriculture as an income source.
The European Union's farm aid system is sacrosanct and must be defended to the hilt at the WTO summit, French Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau said in an interview published in Paris on Tuesday.
"That is the red line which must not be crossed," Bussereau said in comments published in the Aujourd'hui en France daily.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson's task at the WTO summit is "simple" he added: To defend the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
"The CAP, the whole CAP and nothing but the CAP," Bussereau said.
"If this mandate is not respected, France could use its veto because otherwise tens of thousands of workers in the farming and food sectors would be threatened."
Bussereau added: "Commissioner Mandelson has to negotiate in accordance with the mandate handed to him by the European Council. [French Prime Minister] Dominique de Villepin has reminded him of that politely but firmly."
Mandelson has said that the EU will not change its offer of an average 46% cut in farm tariffs unless he sees movement from developing nations on offering to lower their trade barriers on manufactured goods and services.
Mandelson: Hong Kong must help
He said parties gathered at the Hong Kong summit should try to narrow their differences so a treaty can be completed by year's end, saying that developing nations depend on a successful round.
"Whilst we cannot solve the problems of the round in Hong Kong, Hong Kong must help us to find solutions of balance and of ambition in the endgame of the round," Mandelson said.
However, he warned against focusing too much on farm trade: "Concentrating on agriculture, important as it is, to the exclusion of other areas, will defeat that ambition."
Collapse ruled out
India's trade minister said that while it would be hard for 149 WTO members to reach an agreement on farm trade, he did not foresee an outright collapse like the previous ministerial gathering in Cancun, Mexico, two years ago.
Differences over agriculture was the culprit there, too. "I don't see a repeat of Cancun," Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath told the Associated Press. "Cancun was an outburst of a lack of hope. Now countries are hoping."
Still, Nath insisted that "developing countries do not want to see the perpetuation of inequities in global trade".
India's Kamal Nath: States must
stay engaged in negotiations
He urged members to stay engaged in the negotiations and predicted that all parties would strive to make progress at the 13-18 December gathering.
"The next six days are going to see efforts by everybody to move forward," Nath said. "But efforts do not necessarily mean there will be results, because the issues are very, very contentious."
On Tuesday at least 1000 protesters - mostly South Korean farmers wearing red bandanas - gathered at a downtown park to chant slogans against the WTO, driven by fears that opening up their agricultural markets would destroy their livelihoods.
Police have blocked access to roads near the conference site, set up barricades and glued bricks onto the sidewalks in the hopes of preventing violence that has erupted at previous WTO summits.