LAST week's meeting in Montreal of signatories to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade did not dramatically advance free trade. But the inconclusive results are not cause for despair, either. Much of the noise made was just jockeying for position. The principal sticking point was agriculture. The United States wants to abolish farm subsidies; the European Community prefers merely to reduce them.
The atmosphere got rather warmer than is typical for Montreal in December. A timeout was called, to last until April, by which time some behind-the-scenes negotiations may bear fruit.
GATT itself is an immensely complex treaty intended to bring about global free trade. Last week's meeting was a midterm review of progress under the so-called ``Uruguay round'' of talks, the eighth and most wide-ranging to be held under GATT since 1947. The Uruguay round, which is to wrap up in 1990, opened two years ago at Punta del Este, Uruguay - hence its name. The idea behind the midterm review was that getting high-level representatives of all 96 signatories together would create a momentum for agreement on issues not resolved at lower levels. Highly visible sessions are used to complement those at a lower level in the hopes of achieving as much as possible.
In fairness, the Montreal meeting was not a complete bust. Several tentative ``framework'' agreements, intended to guide negotiations over the next two years, were adopted. The unresolved issues involved intellectual property, textiles, and safeguards against ``import surges,'' as well as agriculture.
The United States is pushing hard to liberalize farm trade, because agricultural exports are its best hope for lessening its trade deficit, and if farm subsidies can be eliminated across the board, so can a chunk of the federal budget deficit. Americans are also concerned about protectionism from Europe: As internal barriers to trade among European countries come down, external barriers to keep others out will be reinforced, they fear.
It's a sensitive issue, not only on grounds of pure economics, but because of farmers' political power in most countries. But progress toward freer trade in agriculture is essential if developing countries are really to get a chance to develop and if debtor nations, like Argentina, are going to get a chance to pay off their debts by doing one of the things they do best, export agricultural products.
The larger wonder is that GATT functions at all. Talk about diversity: GATT's members vary tremendously in size, levels of economic and political development, and resource base. Each has its own agenda. Can you imagine sitting down at a Chinese restaurant with 95 other people? How many want egg rolls? How many wonton soups?
Still, the momentum is generally toward free trade. It is especially heartening to see that developing countries, usually quick to bar their doors against imports, are realizing that they must open up if other countries are to be persuaded to import their goods. Let's hope that tempers cool in the months ahead, and that serious agreements can be reached.