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Getting Trade on Track

IF the issue on the table had been the only consideration, European and American trade negotiators could easily have bridged the differences in their oil-seed dispute. Settlement is now under way, but it took the threat of a potentially devastating trade war to bring this about.

The complicating factors are (1) French politics and (2) the broader implications for liberalized world trade.

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French farmers, known for invading the streets with tractors or produce, play a significant role in their country's politics and culture. They strongly oppose any softening of Europe's stance on oil seeds, and they have the sympathies of their countrymen. France's Socialist government faces a tough election in March, and it would prefer to put off unpopular trade decisions.

French delaying tactics were thwarted, however, by the British, Germans, and other EC members who emphasize the larger implications of the oil-seed talks - their impact on negotiations for a global free-trade system.

These GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) talks are hung up on agricultural issues similar to the question of European oil-seed subsidies. If that question can be resolved, the GATT farm issues, extending even to Japan's protected rice market, can be too.

Further, if the Europeans drop their oil-seed subsidies enough to satisfy the Americans, they will meet not only Washington's demands but also those of two GATT arbitration panels which had ruled in favor of the US on the issue. That would bode well for GATT's future, since proven enforcement mechanisms are needed if a new world trade order is to work.

That new order will benefit all nations, including France. But the benefits could be greatly delayed if the momentum gained from an oil-seed breakthrough isn't taken advantage of quickly.

Not just French politics, but American, will come into play next year. The Clinton administration will have to rev up its own trade team, and early in 1993 it will have to renegotiate with Congress the trade legislation that puts the GATT accord on a "fast track." That process could be anything but fast.

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