The European Commission (EC) signaled for the first time Wednesday that it is prepared to water down its hardline negotiating position on trade in order to restart stalled global negotiations.
Its tough stance was blamed by development campaigners for the collapse of trade talks in Cancun last September.
Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, has flatly rejected such criticism. But yesterday he said Brussels was ready to be more flexible.
"After the failure in Cancun, it was clear that `business as usual' was not an option. We needed to have a deep look into what went wrong in Cancun and draw the necessary conclusions," he said.
Most significantly he announced the EC was willing to decouple its demands for talks on grules from the Doha round. It was those demands -- to create global rules on competition, transparency in public procurement, investment and trade facilitation -- that infuriated developing countries, and they refused to even discuss them at Cancun.
Lamy said Brussels was ready to exclude one or all of the issues from the main talks and to pursue negotiations on those issues separately with members of the WTO who were interested in doing so.
"We do want to have rules but we have to be realistic," he told reporters. "We are prepared to put to one side one, two, three or even four of these issues."
But development campaigners warned poor countries were unlikely to be appeased by the concessions because Lamy promised in Cancun to drop the most controversial issues, investment and competition.
Britain favours abandoning the issues completely rather than negotiating a side agreement but failed to find support among the rest of the EU.
Peter Hardstaff of the World Development Movement said the EC was not presenting anything new, however.
"The commission is spinning this as a new concession but they are merely changing their negotiating tactics, not the substance. It's still an attempt to get exactly what they want," he said.