(July 30) Whether you’re talking in Cancun or Calcutta, about steel, widgets or agriculture products, it just doesn’t seem to make any difference.

The U.S. should say only one thing to the European Union — and, while it’s at it, the World Trade Organization — as it prepares for agriculture trade talks in Mexico:

“Show me the modalities.”

The U.S. also should stick to its principles, while the world lines up against its steel tariffs and waves extortive retaliatory duties for agricultural products.

Modalities, or targets that the EU says it is setting up for eliminating its agriculture subsidy program, remain in an ethereal state for the time being — perhaps for a long time being.

Some rough targets are supposed to be in place by the time WTO agriculture talks open up in Cancun Sept. 10.

But EU foot-dragging has thrown that process into its usual state of doubt.

It certainly does little to convince anybody that the EU actually is serious about reforming its agricultural program.

EU officials have been talking about modalities for months now.

Back in April, European Commission Director General for Trade M. Peter Carl outlined several issues on which trade ministers should focus their attention in Cancun.

The talks are an extension of the Doha Round of negotiations, which were launched in November 2001 in Doha, Qatar.

Most of the issues for discussion in Cancun still have not been finalized.

The EU — that “United States of Europe” — in action.

The foot-dragging seems surprising on several fronts, considering that some observers are viewing the Cancun talks as a make-or-break point for the Doha negotiations.

Already, there is talk of downplaying the importance of Cancun. The more important objective, after all, for the WTO is the success of the Doha Round itself.

But setting in motion the end to agricultural subsidies in the EU is essential to U.S. interests.

And there may have to be some deal making before the Europeans agree to even consider dropping subsidies.

Now the House Agricultural Committee is getting involved. The committee heard testimony July 22 on issues that are starting to take some ominous tone as the Cancun talks approach.

Pat Kole, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Boise-based Idaho Potato Commission, testified before the committee. Kole said the EU wants to link “geographic indicators” — or GIs — to elimination of subsidies.

“The EU, as part of it, is saying they want increased protection for what they call their GIs, for things like Roquefort cheese, or Parmesan cheese or other items,” Kole said.

U.S. companies have spent “a gazillion dollars” fighting that protection because it could hurt sales of their products, Kole said.

“It’s the same in the produce industry,” he said.

The current rumor is that the EU won’t consider ending its subsidy program unless GIs are protected, Kole said.

“It’s a big deal,” Kole said. “If you were to look out there, the single biggest thing for agriculture, I think, is, can we get the EU to reform its agriculture policy? We’re not. Their policy is just to subsidize everything.”

What will happen if talks continue to stagger?

Ultimately, trading partners will have to do what they have always done — cut deals for themselves, compete against highly subsidized products and leave their own markets open to invasion by those products.

When dealing with ideas like the WTO or the EU or any other alphabet soup of pie-in-the-sky idealism, the U.S. is going to come up on the short end.

There’s no fighting it. It’s the world against the U.S.

The latest illustration of the folly that is the WTO came July 12, when the WTO ruled that heavy duties on steel imports imposed by the Bush administration violate global trade rules.

Washington immediately said it would appeal, of course, and would keep in place the tariffs that President Bush had justified as necessary to protect domestic steel producers against a flood of cheap imports during a restructuring period.

In response, the EU accelerated its plans to impose $2.2 billion in retaliatory duties on U.S. imports, ranging from footwear to fruit and vegetables — possibly pricing them out of the market.

A three-member panel of trade experts said in a 968-page ruling that the “safeguard” duties of up to 30% introduced by the U.S. last March were out of line with WTO rules. That confirmed an interim ruling issued earlier this year and upheld complaints filed by the EU, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Switzerland, China, New Zealand and Brazil.

In a joint statement, the eight called on the U.S. to remove the duties “without delay.”

The Bush administration will continue to fight for the tariffs.

The EU says it will impose retaliatory duties five days after the WTO formally adopts the report. The U.S. posturing will continue, though, as it files an appeal. Resolution of that could take months.

The WTO is supposed to be one of those one-world-government solutions to complex issues. Once again, it falls short of the mark.

And, given the turbulent history of this latest attempt at Utopia, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for success at Cancun in September.