* EU, U.S., Japan, Mexico say Argentina blocks their imports
* Argentina accuses others of doing the same
* WTO must now try to resolve the dispute
BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The European Union
and the United States stepped up their fight against Argentine
trade practices on Thursday, formally requesting the World Trade
Organization rule on whether the South American country's import
restrictions are illegal.
The move followed similar challenges from Japan and Mexico,
meaning Buenos Aires is now embroiled in disputes with four
major trade partners, who say its rules discriminate against
foreign goods at a time when trade is central to their hopes of
an economic recovery.
"Argentina's import restrictions violate international trade
rules and harm EU exports," EU trade chief Karel De Gucht said
in a statement. "Today's decision ... is the EU's last resort to
see Argentina's unfair trade practices lifted."
EU trade relations with Argentina have worsened since April,
when President Cristina Fernandez seized control of oil firm YPF
from its parent, Spain's Repsol.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Washington had also
asked the Geneva-based WTO for a so-called dispute settlement
panel, a process which can oblige a country to remove
restrictions or face fines.
Argentina too initiated WTO cases on Thursday, accusing the
EU of curbing imports of its biodiesel, and the United States of
restricting imports of its lemons and beef.
The Argentine Foreign Ministry said the latest drive at the
WTO against its trade policies is just a media ploy.
"Faced with our country's specific complaints, they respond
with a broad action that seeks to distract public opinion
instead of resolving the trade barriers that Argentine products
suffer," the ministry said in a statement.
Brussels and Washington say Argentina requires businesses to
apply for import licenses to be able to sell to Latin America's
third largest economy after Brazil and Mexico.
Buenos Aires does not grant the licenses automatically, as
required by global trade rules, they say.
"Argentina's persistent use of protectionist measures
broadly impacts all U.S. exporters of goods to Argentina," Kirk
The Argentine government turned the same concept on its
head, stating: "Argentina reiterates the need for the countries
that are the epicenter of the global crisis to avoid maintaining
protectionist policies that hinder global trade to the detriment
of developing countries."
The European Commission, which handles trade for the 27 EU
member states, says EU exports affected by the restrictions
range from luxury cars and mobile phones to clothes and food.
Since Argentina tightened restrictions earlier this year,
the EU executive says a de facto barrier to all EU exports to
Argentina has been erected.
Such exports were worth 8.3 billion euros in 2011.