France has lashed out at EU plans for liberalising agricultural markets, warning the commission not to exceed its negotiating mandate as it heads towards crucial WTO talks in Hong Kong in December.

In a document circulated at this week’s farm council in Luxembourg, French agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau accused the commission of going too far and demanded that it makes no further concessions.

The attack was in response to an offer tabled by the commission to the WTO two weeks ago (Business, 14 October).

That included a 20-50% reduction in import tariffs, with the most protected products cut the most.

But other WTO partners have accused the EU of not going far enough.

“These negotiations are on the brink of collapse because the EU is refusing to make a meaningful offer on reducing its barriers to imported farm products,” said Australian trade minister Mark Vaile.

Speaking to journalists after this week’s farm council, EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel indicated that she and trade commissioner Peter Mandelson were looking at the figures to see if the EU could make an improved offer.

But she insisted that she would stick to the mandate given by heads of state last year.

“The basis of this is that there should be no new CAP reform as a consequence of the Doha Development Round negotiations.”

Meanwhile, EU agriculture ministers continued to show their divisions on the issue of sugar reform.

A new letter, signed by 11 member states including the big bloc voters of Spain, Italy and Poland, reiterated calls for lower price cuts, longer transition periods and higher compensation.

Mrs Fischer Boel said she was trying to find common ground to meet some of their concerns.

But she stressed a final deal was needed at next month’s council meeting, to give farmers clarity ahead of the next growing season and to strengthen her hand going into WTO negotiations in Hong Kong.

“I can’t defend a new reform unless I know what is in that reform,” she said.

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk