European agriculture must not take the blame if world trade talks in Hong Kong fail to get an agreement on liberalising markets under the Doha Development Round.

Briefing journalists on Monday (12 December) before flying out to Hong Kong, NFU president Tim Bennett insisted the EU had already made a “significant offer” to cut subsidies and open up its markets.

“I get very annoyed by talk in the media that this WTO Round might fail because of the common agricultural policy; frankly that’s rubbish,” he said. “The CAP was reformed in 2003 and 90% of it now fits in the Green box (of non-trade-distorting supports).”

This view was echoed by EU farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, who said she was “bored and disappointed” by the reception the EU’s latest offer to eliminate export subsidies and halve import tariffs had received.

“We have been accused of not delivering real market access,” she said. “But if we look at the example of beef, our proposal would increase net imports into the EU from 500,000t to 1.3m tonnes. Our proposal gives real market access across the board.”

Mrs Fischer Boel also attacked the US for its farm policies. “While our support continues on a downward trend, USA payments continue to increase. Highly trade-distorting counter cyclical payments are forecast to rise from $1.1bn in 2004 to $4.2bn this year.”

But US agriculture secretary Mike Johanns said it was the EU offer that fell well short of what was required. “EU tariffs are high. The EU still maintains it needs to designate 8% of its tariff lines as sensitive products, so it begs the question, where is the market access?”

Oxfam International boss Luis Morago agreed that the EU did not go far enough. “It is shocking to see the contrast between Europe’s inadequate offer on agriculture, and its disproportionate demands for access to poor countries’ industrial goods and services markets,” he said.

While accepting that a detailed agreement on the extent and timing of subsidy and tariff cuts would not be forthcoming in Hong Kong, WTO director general Pascal Lamy stressed the importance of getting such a deal within the next few months.

Failure to do so would jeopardise the whole Round, as the USA’s negotiating mandate runs out at the end of 2006.