Ministers from trade powers might meet in late April or early May to seek a breakthrough in long-delayed negotiations for a global trade deal, the European Union's farm chief said on Monday.
European Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told reporters that new compromise proposals on core areas of the World Trade Organisation talks could be floated by mediators at the end of March or in early April.
"Then, if it is possible to narrow down the outstanding issues, hopefully some of the extremely technical questions, then a ministerial (meeting) could take place at the end of April or at the beginning of May," she said after meeting EU farm ministers.
A deal now might help offset some of the gloom in financial markets, WTO officials and negotiators say.
More than six years of on-off talks for the WTO's Doha global trade round face a latest make-or-break phase in the next few weeks.
The talks have missed deadline after deadline as rich and poor countries argued about the size of concessions they would have to accept. Without a breakthrough soon, the round could be delayed by several more years or collapse altogether due to the 2009 changeover in the U.S. White House and elections afterwards in other trade powers such as India
The Doha round was launched in 2001 to boost the global economy and ease poverty in developing countries.
As part of an agreement, the United States, Europe and other rich countries would cut farm subsidies and import tariffs for agricultural goods in return for developing countries bringing down tariffs on goods such as cars or chemicals.
Fischer Boel said recent WTO proposals on industrial goods had represented a backwards step for the EU.
"But I feel, or I see, or I can hear that some progress should be possible" on the industrial goods part of the negotiation, the key condition for the EU's farm offer.
Her comment represented a slightly more upbeat tone after other EU officials said recently that developing countries such as Brazil were refusing to bring concessions to the table, raising the risk of the first failure of a global trade round.
Ministers injected some fresh hope into the Doha round in January when they said they hoped they could hold a ministerial meeting around Easter. But progress in technical negotiations since then has been slow.
France -- the biggest recipient of Europe's farm subsidies and a vocal critic of the European Commission's tactics in the trade talks -- plus some other EU countries on Monday repeated their warnings against rushing into what could be a bad deal.
"I want to make a warning against haste, the temptation to rush ahead," French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier told reporters after the meeting. "We cannot accept that the calendar comes before the content.... We prefer no deal to a bad deal."
He said Brussels should make no further farm concessions.
German Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer also criticised the Commission for offering too much on agriculture in return for nothing in industrial goods or services.