DID they serve parsnips with the meat course at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in the City of London on Monday evening? If so I hope there was also a side order of butter because, as the old saying goes, fine words alone will not be enough. In his traditional speech Tony Blair certainly had some fine words about the need for progress in the imminent final stages of the co-called Doha round of trade talks but they will not have been sufficient to make palatable the policies that are needed to prevent a collapse of the talks in Hong Kong in December. The central issue, and the key to much else in these negotiations, is agricultural subsidies. It's really very simple. If the United States and the European Union were willing to cut drastically, or better, to end altogether, the subsidies they pay to keep their farmers in profitable business, the whole rigged structure of international trade would collapse and developing countries in particular would benefit enormously, lessening their dependence on aid and debt-relief. Unfortunately, although conceptually it's very simple it's also politically very difficult. French agriculture is probably the most cushioned in the world, with the possible exception of Japan's, yet President Chirac is root-and-branch opposed to any change for the next eight years. A few months ago President Bush undertook to abolish all of America's often indefensible farm subsidies if Europe would do the same with their's; it was a safe thing to say because he knows Europe will not. In his speech in the City of London Mr Blair said that if next month's Hong Kong talks are unsuccessful their failure would echo round the world and he committed himself to doing whatever it takes over the next few weeks to overcome the divisions among the World Trade Organisation's 148 members. Mr Blair has one or two other priorities on his plate at the moment and one wonders just what he can do to achieve in weeks what years of negotiation have failed to bring about. Britain holds the presidency of the European Union until the end of the year and if Mr Blair were able, despite France, to make a significant gesture on subsidies and tariffs it would bring to a highly satisfactory conclusion what has otherwise been a most disappointing presidency.
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