TAORMINA, Italy - European Union farm ministers meeting in Taormina, Italy, on Sept. 21 unanimously agreed to support a multilateral approach to trade negotiations favored by the EU, despite the collapse of the World Trade Organization talks in Mexico.
"All ministers want to stick to the multilateral approach, and [they] made it very clear [that the bilateral approach] was not an alternative," said EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler.
"It seems to me that to say, 'OK, forget Cancun, let's go to Geneva and the ambassadors will do what the ministers didn't do in Cancun' is an illusion," Fischler said.
The conference in Mexico foundered in a dispute between developed and developing countries over reductions in farm subsidies and on proposals for the WTO to sponsor talks on a global mechanism governing cross-border private investment.
Agriculture ministers also agreed here that reforms to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy should remain on track as agreed at a tough session of negotiations between EU members in June in Luxembourg. That agreement will pave the way to limited reform to the way the EU subsidizes its cereal and dairy farmers.
"All ministers agree that the reform remains in place," Fischler said.
Italy's Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said that CAP reform had not been motivated purely by negotiations on trade liberalization at the WTO talks.
Fischler was expected to brief the farm ministers on proposals he will release this week to reform four sectors left untouched by the June accord — sugar, olive oil, tobacco and cotton.
Australia, Brazil and Thailand have challenged the EU's sugar subsidies at the WTO, warning that they "grossly distort" trade in the commodity.
Tobacco and cotton are also key export-earners for many developing countries, which argue they are unable to compete with the subsidized produce of the rich world.
Sugar is the most sensitive for the EU member states. France and Germany together account for more than half of the bloc's sugar production, which as a whole amounts to 13 percent of global output.
But for Fischler, reform of the EU's costly sugar regime is getting more pressing as the bloc prepares to welcome 10 additional member states from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean in May next year.
"We need anyhow some sort of change [on sugar subsidies], with or without Cancun. If not we will have a kind of implosion," Fischler said Sept. 21.
"I say this to make clear that nobody can believe that because of the failure of Cancun there would be no need to reform. The status quo is unsustainable."
Fischler was expected to propose cutting domestic support prices for sugar producers and the progressive elimination of production quotas by 2013.
"The discussion promises to be heated. Without a doubt we'll see the creation of a group of vested interests centered on France and Germany," said one source in the EU.
After the enlargement, the area of EU farmland devoted to beet production will increase by 30 percent, and total sugar output will go up by 15 percent, according to commission figures.
But EU countries such as France, which held out for weeks against the June common agricultural policy deal, are likely to resist any far-reaching reform measures proposed by the EU executive.