PARIS — EVEN the elements have decided to get in the way of an agreement on a new world-trade treaty.
With seven years of fruitless negotiations in the background and the clock ticking toward the Dec. 15 deadline, Secretary of State Warren Christopher almost did not make it to Brussels Tuesday night because heavy snow temporarily closed the airport. On Wednesday Trade Representative Mickey Kantor's flight also arrived late. The two men eventually reached the Belgian capital, but the delays were symbolic of the unending difficulties in concluding a treaty regulating world commerce.
Once in Brussels, Mr. Kantor met with European Community Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan and Mr. Christopher saw European Commission President Jacques Delors in an effort to break the deadlocked talks, which have been stalled over agricultural subsidies and demands by France and other European countries that movies and television be excluded from any free trade deal.
If the negotiators finally come to terms on the outline of an accord, it will be presented to EC foreign ministers today. If no such agreement is reached, political observers agree that it will be almost impossible to meet the deadline set by the United States Congress and accepted by the negotiators. Any agreement in Brussels must be presented to the 115-nation talks being held in Geneva under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
With unemployment continuing to grow in Europe, a GATT accord is seen by most economists and politicians as fundamental to pulling the continent out of its worst recession since 1973 because it could pump as much as $200 billion a year into the world economy.
France, whose own jobless rate grew to 12 percent in November, is widely viewed as the troublemaker that has sidetracked an agreement with demands that the agricultural subsidy accord worked out last year between the European Commission and Washington be renegotiated. But as the deadline approached there were signs that the French position was evolving.
In an interview early this week with the Washington Post, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur said Paris was ready to compromise over agricultural subsidies in return for concessions by the US. ``I want an agreement, but some progress must be achieved,'' he said.
Although the reduction in subsidies to agricultural exports called for by an accord between Washington and the EC would affect a mere $711 million of France's annual $33.2 billion in farm exports, the issue has touched a sensitive cord in the French pysche because of the traditional importance of the land in this country's history and culture.
``Signing the document as it now stands would be like tying your two hands behind your back in front of the Americans,'' claims Henri de Benoist, president of the powerful General Association of Wheat Producers. A possible compromise being considered, according to diplomats, is to save the largest cuts for the final years and to apply them on a category basis rather than product-by-product as now envisioned. Until now, however, Paris has insisted that such a step would not be enough.
Besides agriculture, the two main problems are market access and the audiovisual industry. France wants the film and television industry to be ``exempted'' from a GATT treaty on grounds that free trade in this area would give an unfair advantage to companies in the US. In its push for market access, Washington has said that countries who open their financial markets would benefit from any future deregulation of US financial markets.