EUROPEAN Community officials, who only months ago assumed they would be dealing with President Bush for four more years, are now convinced that a change in American administrations is increasingly plausible - and that perception is coloring the EC's approach to international trade negotiations.
For months both EC and United States officials have been insisting that everything possible would be done to settle the two trading giants' agriculture dispute so that a far-reaching reform of international trade rules could be signed by year's end.
Now some Community officials question the wisdom of any rush to conclude the six-year-old talks on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), known as the Uruguay Round, if prospects for a change in US administrations are growing.
"People here are seriously wondering if there is any sense in signing an agreement before the outcome of the US elections is known," says one well-placed EC official. "The question that's come up repeatedly just in the last few days is, `Would we just end up paying twice, once with Bush and then again with whatever revisions might be demanded by a Clinton administration?' "
The EC official's comments followed an Oct. 2 announcement that chief US trade negotiator Carla Hills and Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan will go to Brussels Oct. 11 to push for an end to the EC-US farm trade impasse.
The EC, whose representatives recently were in the US calling for a swift conclusion of the 105-nation GATT negotiations, is not about to block an agreement that appears acceptable. But the European public's sour mood toward the Community will make EC officials all the more eager not to look as if they are caving in to US demands on trade.
EC officials' focus on US elections in terms of how they might affect the GATT talks illustrate how US-EC relations are narrowly focused on trade issues. This limited scope remains a deep disappointment to EC officials. Any talk of the US here is inevitably tinged with regrets over the failed promise of a new era in US-EC relations that EC officials had thought would be an element of a Bush administration.
"There was optimistic anticipation a couple of years ago that what was perceived to be a too limited and unequal relationship was going to change, but in fact it hasn't much," says one EC official. "The relationship has pretty much remained stuck on trade considerations."
Talk of closer and more equal relations dates from November 1990, when a "Transatlantic Declaration" was signed creating biannual summits between the US president and the EC Commission president (currently Jacques Delors) and the holder of the EC's rotating six-month presidency (currently Britain).
While the summits have been cordial, they have been dominated by intractable and often bitter disagreements over agricultural trade. "That has made for a mediocre atmosphere where more constructive relations have simply failed to get off the ground," one EC official says.
The widespread disappointment does not translate to a preference for Bill Clinton, however. "We simply don't know Clinton or [Democratic vice-presidential candidate Al] Gore," says one observer close to Mr. Delors.
As for Ross Perot, EC officials say they know even less about him, and generally dismiss him as an American curiosity who has no chance of winning. And while Mr. Perot's focus on government debt might be expected to raise favorable interest among European leaders, the feeling here is that a "one-issue" US president would not be in the world's interest.
Unlike Mr. Clinton, Bush was a known factor to European and Community officials before he became president, and Bush and Delors are known to have developed a chemistry.
But that relationship, too, has come under pressure recently - as when Bush last month announced a new round of subsidies for selling US grain overseas. The president said the EC was the target of his move, using harsh words that EC officials did not appreciate.
"Hitting at Europe and saying Europe is the cause of all the evils of the world are heavy statements that we do not consider productive, at least for reaching an agreement at GATT," says one Commission official close to the GATT negotiations. "But we realize Mr. Bush is in a tough election battle, so we have tried not to be equally provocative in our reaction."
As for an eventual Bush defeat, this official says he has detected no sense within the EC that a Clinton presidency would handle international trade negotiations substantially differently.