The European Union is under pressure to improve its offer on farm tariff cuts within 10 days, or risk the cancellation of December's Hong Kong trade summit, according to trade officials.
Officials in Europe say that Pascal Lamy, WTO director-general, has warned them there is no point going ahead with the meeting in December without a more ambitious proposal.
The other leading partners in the negotiations - the US and the Group of 20 developing countries - have also identified the EU's position as the main sticking point. "A clear and rising degree of concern has been expressed to us," said one European Commission official.
The official confirmed that Mr Lamy had suggested that the next week to 10 days was the make-or-break point for the Doha round of talks. The WTO declined to comment.
Cancelling a ministerial meeting, which take place every other year, would require the consent of all 148 members of the WTO and would be an admission that the round had come to a halt.
The EU, which initially offered what the US says is a 24.5 per cent cut in farm tariffs, is working on a second and final offer which it hopes to present later this week, proposing cuts likely to average around 40 per cent.
But such a plan would fall short of what the US says is the minimum acceptable offer - to match the G20's plan for an average 54 per cent cut.
Even offering cuts of around 40 per cent would require Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner, to win backing from the member states in the face of continued objections from France.
Mr Mandelson travelled to Paris on Thursday for private talks with Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister. The Commission has tried to emphasise its willingness to work with the French, and only appeal over their heads to the other member states if compromise fails.
But Philippe Douste-Blazy, France's foreign minister, insisted on Sunday that EU member states had introduced unprecedented cuts in farm subsidies when they agreed to reform the Common Agricultural Policy in 2003 and could not go further. "We must not sacrifice the CAP," he said in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche. "Mr Mandelson is the commissioner for all the member states and should conduct himself as such."
Mr Mandelson wants an offer to at least match the cuts agreed in the previous "Uruguay round" of trade talks, which reduced farm tariffs by an average of 36 per cent. "If there is another bid, it will be a final and non-negotiable one, and will be dependent on progress in the goods and services parts of the talks," the Commission official said. John Tsang, the Hong Kong commerce secretary due to host December's ministerial, told the Financial Times that the process was "at crisis point".
"This agriculture deadlock could really derail the whole project," Mr Tsang said, adding that the EU call for liberalisation in goods and services at the same time was pointless. "We all know agriculture is the key, the EU holds the key, and now is the time to turn the key."
Additional reporting by John Thornhill in Paris
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