Bumpy road to trade pact: Lobbyists hovered as negotiators resorted to all-night talks

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The Independent Online
AT 4am on Wednesday in Geneva an upper window of the US trade mission flew open and a man began baying at the moon.

'It's done,' he howled. 'They've done it.' For the posse of journalists waiting below, there was no mistaking the Irish brogue of Peter Sutherland, the Gatt director-general. He was celebrating with a sleeping world that - after five fevered nights, six sapping months and seven soul-destroying years - a textile deal between the US, India and Pakistan had been struck: the last piece in the Gatt jigsaw had fallen into place.

For Mr Sutherland, who was appointed in July, the Gatt deal was a triumph that owed much to his personal style. His predecessor, Arthur Dunkel, had succeeded over the years since the Round first opened in Uruguay in 1986 in putting together some 80 per cent of the final agreement, but he could not force through the rest.

'Dunkel was too steeped in the machinery of the Gatt. Sutherland took a much more political stance and made sure he dealt with the power brokers - the heads of government - rather than with trade ministers. He used a combination of carrot and stick, always wielded with much charm but also with a bluntness that commanded respect. He said and did things Dunkel would never have got away with,' said one insider.

When the Uruguay Round broke down in December 1990, the sticking point was agriculture. And it has been on this point - the resolution of disagreements between Washington and Brussels - that the talks have since turned. Since the US and the European Union dominate world trade, any deals on agriculture or anything else had to be agreed bilaterally before the other Gatt partners were brought in and the talks were - in Gatt parlance - multilateralised.

The first breakthrough came in December 1992 when the US and the EC stitched up their farm row with the so- called Blair House accord. But for the EU, this was the start of the problems. Paris complained the deal involved more hardship for French farmers than envisaged under recently concluded internal European farm reforms.

The French government demanded changes that masked the fact it had not played its hand well during the internal EC negotiations on farm reform. It was hoping, through changes in Blair House, to make up some of the lost ground. This is why it has been so hard for France to fall into line with her European partners. The French farming lobby is powerful, and the policy had to be delicately handled.

It was Mr Sutherland who injected the necessary dynamism. He made clear in July that everyone understood the finality of the 15 December 'fast-track' deadline (after which the US Congress would no longer be obliged to consider the deal as a package and would be free to unravel it section by section). And it was he who spent most of the next four months shuttling to India, Singapore and Latin America, whipping a deal into shape.

On 20 September, France gave Sir Leon Brittan, the Trade Commissioner, a shopping list of demands but - crucially - a free hand with which to negotiate them.

This was the signal: Washington now knew that Sir Leon could deliver France and the other 11 member countries. Mickey Kantor, a lawyer like Sir Leon, was committed to a global deal but needed to see the North America Free Trade agreement in the bag first. By November he had it, but Nafta had upset the US textile lobby.

On 2 December, Mr Kantor and Sir Leon met in Brussels and announced they had 'clarified' the Blair House accord in such a way as to meet most of the French demands. Immediately the anti-Gatt rhetoric out of Paris began to soften. Mr Kantor flew to Geneva - and into the arms of the US lobbies which had moved en masse into one of the big hotels.

President Clinton would not be in the White House without California and the financial support of Hollywood, and the state called in its dues last week. Suddenly, the audiovisual chapter, which most believed had been virtually resolved, loomed as a problem that Mr Kantor, a one-time LA attorney, knew he could not afford to ignore.

Meetings went on all weekend, day and night. Sir Leon returned to Brussels for consultation; in Geneva, the US line on other difficult dossiers, financial and maritime services, the row over aircraft subsidies, hardened. On Monday night a weary Sir Leon touched down in Geneva and went straight to the US mission to emerge at 9.15am still with no firm deal. He returned at 10am. A quarter of an hour later, audiovisual was out of the Gatt package and the other issues had been spectacularly fudged, and the way was clear to conclude the final deal on textiles.

(Photographs omitted)