Officials from 18 countries are beginning a three-day meeting in Australia aimed at kick starting stalled World Trade Organization talks. The delegates are expected to focus on an Australian proposal to expand farm trade, which some officials hope could revive the WTO's Doha Round of talks.
Delegates at the meeting in Cairns aim to breathe new life into World Trade Organization talks that collapsed in July.
The Cairns Group of 18 farm-exporting nations, including Australia, argues that trade barriers and farm subsidies in most developed countries harm their exports. They also say that these barriers trap many farmers in developing nations in poverty.
However, powerful farm lobbies in the United States, Europe and Japan oppose ending subsidies, saying their farmers would be unable to compete with a flood of cheap imports.
The Australian government has offered a compromise - asking the United States to cut its farm subsidies by $5 billion, and the European Union to cut its agricultural tariffs by an additional five percent.
Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile acknowledges the plan is likely to meet opposition from the United States and EU.
He says, however, that the compromise is fair.
"What we've proposed as a midpoint, as a middle ground, that will deliver real trade flows, is that an extra five percent on what has been proposed in cutting agricultural tariffs across the world," he said. "So, about 59 percent average tariff cut, plus an extra cut of about five billion dollars on domestic support, particularly if you focus on the United States."
There are some glimmers of hope, however, that the summit in Cairns could end the deadlock. Senior U.S. trade officials are attending the meeting in northern Australia to discuss ways to move talks forward.
WTO chief Pascal Lamy said at a news conference in Cairns that the proposals under the Doha round of trade talks are worth saving.
"There is quite an impressive package which represents a quantum leap," he said.
He says he is optimistic that an agreement can still be reached and that a deal will be finalized before the end of 2007.
The Doha round of talks, begun in 2001, was supposed to deliver a global agreement to ease trade barriers by 2004 but dragged on until Lamy suspended negotiations in July.
The Cairns Group's 18 members include Brazil, Canada, Indonesia and Pakistan. It was formed in 1986 to campaign for the removal of farm trade barriers.