US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick renewed assurances that the United States is willing to reduce farm export subsidies if Europe and other countries do the same, on February 24 at a meeting of the Cairns Group of 17 agricultural exporting countries.

Two weeks ago, Zoellick challenged the European Union to scrap subsidies on farm exports, saying, “Our position is that we would be willing to eliminate them tomorrow.”

A special guest at the Cairns Group meeting in the Costan Rican capital, Zoellick said a European proposal to gradually reduce such subsidies was “understandable” given the size of the region’s subsidies.

“They want to lower them in stages and this is understandable,” Zoellick said. “But then we also would lower them at the same pace that they do.”

Agriculture has become a stumbling block in World Trade Organization negotiations to complete a new binding treaty on reducing import tariffs and other barriers to free international trade among its 146 members.

When WTO members launched the current round of negotiations in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, they set themselves a deadline of the end of this year to reach an accord.

But the chances of meeting that deadline have looked more doubtful after a ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, collapsed without agreement in September.

Poor nations are demanding massive cuts in the $1 billion per day paid by rich nations in farm subsidies. Industrialized countries, in return, want to see developing nations make cuts in import duties on agricultural products and manufactured goods, as well as accepting foreign competition in areas like communications and financial services.

Inaugurating the Cairns Group meeting, Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile said, “I don’t believe that 2004 will be a lost year for Doha.”

He emphasized that the 17 nations of the Cairns Group should support a return to WTO negotiations - without forgetting the goal of liberalizing agricultural trade.

“It’s terribly unjust that our farmers are excluded from the largest markets,” he said. “We are only seeking that agriculture receive the same treatment that industrial goods receive. No more, no less.”

The members of the Cairns Group are Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paraguay, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay. (Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)