Foreign Ministers Joust Over Farm Trade Reform
Fall GATT deadline raises the intensity of agriculture trade debate
ALDEN BIESEN, BELGIUM
EUROPEAN Community external trade commissioner Sir Leon Brittan arrives for talks in Washington this week representing a Community still deeply divided over the problem of farm trade liberalization.
With France threatening to use its veto to stop an agreement reached last November with the United States on reducing subsidized farm exports, EC member countries face a stark choice: rebuff the French and see the Community plunged into yet another internal crisis - after the summer's monetary upheavals - or risk the collapse of global trade liberalization negotiations.
Long discussions among EC foreign ministers over the past weekend, plus talks in the coming week, could still result in a compromise solution. In addition, Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes, who will represent the EC at today's signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, said he would discuss trade issues with Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Still, with the seven-year-old Uruguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations set to conclude by Dec. 15, time is running short.
Belgium, which holds the EC's rotating presidency through December, hosted two days of talks.
``I can't say I see somewhere the beginning of compromise,'' Mr. Claes said. ``The different approaches are still there.''
Claes's words could not have been music to the ears of French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who called for a ``European bloc to show [the Americans] that Europe is not divided.''
Saying that the Americans were demonstrating ``absolute intransigence'' by refusing to change last year's farm trade agreement, Mr. Juppe said the US position - which ``might be a bluff'' - could mean failure of the GATT talks.
``Are the Americans ready to run that risk?,'' he asked. ``I don't think so.''
THE problem for France is twofold. First, none of its 11 EC partners appears to support a renegotiation of the so-called ``Blair House'' accord, reached between the US and the EC's executive commission. The commission, which stands by the accord, will try this week to show EC members how it is compatible with a broader agriculture reform voted by the EC, including the French, last year.
And second, several of France's EC partners, including export-dependent Germany and The Netherlands, who keenly desire the Uruguay Round's promise of far-reaching trade liberalization, worry that a US focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement debate, health care reform, and trade issues with Asia, might give up on GATT and allow the Europeans to be saddled with blame for its collapse.
EC leaders said Sunday that a planned summit for late October to launch the Maastrict Treaty would be impossible if the Community was still split on agricultural trade issues at that time. British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd and Belgian Foreign Minister Claes both said a summit would be useless in the context of a European split.
The Uruguay Round is the first time agriculture has figured in multilateral trade negotiations. The world's poorer, nonsubsidizing farm producers want liberalized farm trade in exchange for opening up their markets to liberalized trade in services and other sectors.
Despite its public brinkmanship - directed largely at its domestic audience - France has proposed several ways Blair House could be modified while retaining its commitment to a 21 percent reduction in the EC's subsidized farm exports.
The French propose either a lengthening of the six-year period over which the accord is to be implemented, or exempting current farm stocks, humanitarian aid, and processed foods.
As the world's second-largest farm exporter after the US, the French are concerned that a failure to change the agreement would greatly increase the amount of land French farmers are required by the EC to leave unplowed.
These ideas and the US reaction will be discussed at a meeting of EC ministers Sept. 20, the outcome of which is likely to determine prospects for the Uruguay Round.