GATT: Almost in Hand

AFTER nearly eight years of often-tortuous trade talks, representatives from more than 120 countries finally have put the nibs of their Montblancs to paper.

The package of agreements, negotiated during the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, is designed to remove trade barriers. It also will establish a body known as the World Trade Organization, which is to open for business on Jan. 1, 1995. The WTO will oversee implementation of the deal, as well as try to mediate disputes and enforce the pact's provisions.

That the agreement has come this far is a minor miracle considering the number of times negotiations were deemed on the verge of collapse. The round's contentiousness was evident right up to Friday's signing ceremony when France and Germany resolved a last-minute dispute over the European Union's policy on banana imports.

Such comic relief may have appeal in the next few months, given the serious issues that the WTO and the agreement face. The United States and France, for example, want the WTO to take up the issue of labor standards and practices, particularly the use of child labor. Many developing countries argue that cheap labor is one of their few competitive advantages and see the issue as a smoke screen for protectionism. Developing nations are offering their own WTO agendas, including labor mobility (read: emigration) and commodities-trading practices. The link between trade and the environment also is on the WTO's plate.

Beyond an agenda lies the broader question of whether the WTO will have the authority to enforce the agreement. Nations also must enact implementing legislation. In the US, tensions already are growing over how to recoup $13 billion in lost tariff revenue expected over the next five years. One plan would reduce farm price supports to offset the loss. If that idea moves forward, farm groups vow to fight any enabling legislation.

If negotiators had their hands full with each other, they now must face another test: convincing constituencies at home that the agreements are in their best interests.

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