Meeting on 26 May, an increasing number of European trade ministers appeared to join the chorus of criticism and concern regarding the latest proposals for an international trade agreement, presented by WTO mediators last week.
Although none of the governments rejected the documents outright, "a majority" of the EU's 27 member states "expressed concern" about the texts, according to French Junior Trade Minister Anne-Marie Idrac.
France, Poland, Ireland and Lithuania were reported to "really have problems with what's on the table", while other countries, including Finland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Hungary and even Germany, appear to be "in the middle" with a series of concerns.
"We have a lot of questions" about the agriculture proposals and "for us French there's no improvement on market access for our industrial goods to emerging markets," said Idrac, concluding: "We are less than ever in an ambitious and balanced negotiation."
Only Sweden and Britain appeared to defend EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson in his stance that achieving a deal before the end of the year is crucial in light of the US presidential election in November.
"Our view is you need substance. It's not about completing this just because there's six months left for the US presidency," said Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, adding that it would be wiser to wait until a new administration is in place before taking the negotiations further.
In the industrial sector in particular, ministers voiced their dissatisfaction with the proposals, which they said did not offer sufficient guarantees on opening up new market opportunities for their businesses in third countries.
Germany in particular slammed new flexibilities in the texts that would enable large emerging economies such as China to shelter entire sectors of their industry from outside competition.
Strong business concerns
The concerns of ministers echoed last week's flurry of criticism from the EU's largest business lobbies.
In a letter addressed to Peter Mandelson on 23 May, BusinessEurope said the latest draft on industrial goods was "a step backwards for trade liberalisation" due to a new tariff reduction formula that enables countries like India, Brazil and Argentina to make fewer cuts in import duties while allowing new WTO members such as China and Taiwan to phase in tariff cuts over up to 15 years.
The employers' association was joined in its criticism by other industry associations, ranging from metalworkers and carmakers, to the paper, chemicals and textile industries. In a joint press release issued on 22 May, they lamented the "continuous erosion of ambitions in the negotiations since the start of the Round in 2001".
"We find nothing in the negotiating text that would meet our aspirations," stated Ivan Hodac, secretary general of the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association ACEA.
Mandelson himself conceded that discussion on market access for manufactured goods was "now becoming the big political question of this round" and that "more work" was needed, especially on behalf of major developing countries.
He nevertheless insisted that he had received backing from an "overwhelming majority" of EU nations.