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Global Trade Talks Head Sharply Downhill

Key negotiators at global trade talks appear to be just as far from a deal as when they started formal meetings three days ago.

European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson sounded a grim note Thursday about the World Trade Organization talks.

"There couldn't be any less negotiation," he said.

In other words - almost no negotiations are going on.

For many less developed nations, the core obstacle to greater trade liberalization is Europe's highly protected agriculture market. However, Mr. Mandelson says he has not seen any credible proposals on farming or any other issue.

"In the case of agriculture, we have some offers which are so unrealistic and so reckless that they must have been tabled for tactical reasons only," added Mr. Mandelson. "If these negotiations are going to proceed, we need more on the table."

EU officials want more access to developing countries' markets for manufactured goods and services.

The European Union has become a magnet for criticism at this week's meeting. United States Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns chastised EU officials on Thursday for failing to match an offer to cut farm subsidies Washington made in October.

The EU's Mr. Mandelson was serenaded Thursday by activists taking part in the WTO conference. Singing to the tune of the Christmas carol "Jingle Bells", the activists criticized Europe's aid-for-trade proposals as "empty through and through."

Much louder, but less melodic, protests continued for a third day outside the Hong Kong talks venue.

Many anti-WTO activists such as these say they would welcome a failure of this week's talks. They say it would weaken, and perhaps permanently cripple, the organization as a mechanism for governing world trade. Many of the activists think that liberalizing trade would hurt the farmers and businesses in poor countries because they would not be able to compete with those in wealthier nations.