Careful Words Rescue EC Agriculture Talks

Resolution may put GATT back on schedule for Dec. 15 finish

A COMPROMISE reached by the European Community over its approach to farm trade talks gives new impetus to international negotiations seeking a trade liberalization accord.

Yet the early morning agreement Sept. 21, while it avoids an EC crisis over agriculture issues that almost certainly would have brought the Uruguay Round of world trade talks to a halt, contains two risks.

First, the diplomatic ambiguity required by the EC to avoid an internal split may leave its negotiating partners unsure about the EC's negotiating position.

Second, the compromise, while it allows the French to placate irate farmers, may prove to have only put off an EC divorce over world trade liberalization.

``We're going to need a decoder,'' is how one French observer assessed a text that EC foreign, agriculture, and trade ministers issued after 13 hours of discussions here.

In effect, the compromise stops short of calling for the ``renegotiation'' France had sought of an accord on farm trade reached between the EC and the United States last November. That agreement, which calls for a 21 percent cut in EC-subsidized farm exports over six years, is considered a key element in a successful round of the 110-nation General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks because it settled what has been the most contentious issue between the GATT's two weightiest members.

On the other hand, the EC compromise includes a shopping list of French demands for adjusting the EC-US agreement but remains vague as to just what is supposed to be done with the list.

`WE obtained what we wanted,'' said Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister. But that assessment was immediately called ``a little too glorious'' by French farm leader Luc Guyot, who added, ``Everything remains to be done.''

British leaders, who were most outspoken in their opposition to any ``renegotiation'' of the EC-US agreement said the delineation of French concerns was a ``simple listing'' and did not constitute a fresh mandate for the Community's chief trade negotiator, EC Commission Vice-President Sir Leon Brittan. ``No new mandate has been given [to me] because none is needed,'' Sir Leon said, and added that the ``clarification'' he would pursue with the US is ``an important task but a limited task.'' EC-US talks resume in Washington Sept. 26.

Mr. Brittan said the most important outcome of the EC discussions was that the full Community now takes seriously a Dec. 15 deadline for concluding the Uruguay Round. ``Dec. 15 is now seen as a genuine deadline,'' he said. But the French challenged that assessment, maintaining that Dec. 15 is an ``American date'' that is an acceptable target but which ``holds no magic.''

Most eyes were focused on Germany, to see how far it would go in supporting French farm demands. And indeed, the Sept. 21 compromise came after Germany joined France in forwarding a text that included specific French complaints. Yet while French officials described the proposal as a ``Franco-German'' text, German officials said it was ``more accurately a French text we had no problem in supporting.''

Much of the discussion may appear arcane and bureaucratic, but underlying the tortuous farm-trade debate remains a central question: whether the EC will maintain an open trade orientation, or whether it will turn down a more protectionist path.

British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd gave a hint of the possible repercussions of a collapse of the Uruguay Round, when he warned that it would make the ``normal transaction'' of EC business impossible. ``That would be the sign that the Community had been won over by protectionist, inward-looking forces,'' one British official said.

France continues to call for a quick and successful conclusion to the Uruguay Round. But Mr. Juppe insisted that ``a delay [beyond December] wouldn't be fatal for the world economy.'' Transportation and Tourism Minister Bernard Bosson went further, saying, ``I haven't given up on [France] finding in the world and in Europe allies for our vision of GATT which isn't the ultraliberalism that reigns in the US and, unfortunately, in Brussels.''

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