Leaders Claim Progress on GATT

Success said to pave way for breakthrough at July 7 Japan summit, but details scanty

TRADE ministers from the world's leading industrial countries said that their meeting Friday to jump-start stalled world trade talks was a rousing success.

"We made significant progress," United States Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said following a day of talks with Japanese Trade Minister Yoshiro Mori; the European Community's new trade chief, Sir Leon Brittan; and Canadian Trade Minister Michael Wilson. "We've all agreed to strive for an ambitious package" of tariff cuts, Mr. Kantor said.

Canada's Wilson told reporters that progress in Toronto was due to "positive attitudes brought to this meeting." He predicted that momentum would build in a June 2 ministerial meeting in Paris and a June 24 meeting in Japan - pulling the rest of the world toward a global agreement.

Until last fall, however, the talks appeared in danger of failure because of a stalemate between the EC (specifically France) and the US over subsidies to farmers. That deadlock was partly resolved by a November US-EC agreement that allowed the Toronto talks to move beyond agriculture subsidies to market access and which tariffs should be lowered.

The world trade talks, known as the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, encompass 114 countries. But the four powers meeting in Toronto make up about 65 percent of world trade and are looked to by the world community to lead on trade issues.

Friday's meeting was considered key to paving the way for a breakthrough trade agreement at the July 7 summit of the G-7 countries in Japan, analysts said. There were also fears that without at least the appearance of strong progress in Toronto, the Clinton administration might have more trouble getting Congress to renew the fast-track legislation that expired in March, analysts say. The fast track is needed if Mr. Clinton is to meet the Dec. 15 deadline he has set for getting an overall trade agreement.

"The concentration and intensification of these meetings against the backdrop of fast-track negotiations in the US gives me hope that we can get an overall agreement this year," Wilson said.

But while superlatives like "vision, flexibility, openness, and new momentum" were ladled out by Wilson, the Canadian host, very little specific evidence of progress was offered by any of the ministers.

Sir Leon, for example, said that last year "the talks were pretty dormant" but that he and Kantor earlier this year had put the GATT talks in "first gear." "We're at least now in top gear," he said.

But when ministers were asked what specifics the ministers saw as reason for such optimism when other trade talks victories had been proclaimed - followed by stalemate - he added: "If you draw up a score sheet after every round, that is not the way to make progress."

Responding to a question about whether Japan was offering significant concessions on rice imports and financial services in order to move the talks along, Kantor said: "We agreed not to discuss specific areas."

It was Mr. Mori, however, who offered reporters the only specific proposal discussed by the four that day. He said Japan had offered tariff reductions on 770 items, if Japan's trading partners would also offer their own concessions. The items included electronic goods, construction machinery, medical and scientific equipment, film, and rubber.

Despite the optimism, the sticky issue of agricultural subsidies has not been completely solved. French Premier Edouard Balladur issued a statement Thursday indicating his dissatisfaction with the November agricultural accord and threatened a veto. One conference official, however, noted that the French statement could be read in a positive way because, while it opposes the US-EC agreement, "at least it indicates the specifics of what they are unhappy about," he says. "Before they just didn't like the wh ole idea."

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