Commentary: A little sabotage goes a long way

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Once again there is a real and unpleasant prospect that there may be no Gatt agreement. Yesterday the secretariat postponed a meeting of top negotiators from tomorrow to next Tuesday, and US officials admitted that there was no chance at all of the Bush administration being able to hand over an oven-ready package to the Clinton team.

After the EC and the Americans had come to an agreement on agriculture in November, it was widely believed that the Uruguay round could be tied up rapidly. But the translation of the political deal into a precise legal text has taken much longer than anyone expected - so long, indeed, that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that a little subtle sabotage was at work.

As the saboteurs well knew, only a small delay was needed to push the agreement into the relentless crushing machine that is the US political system. The administration wanted to present it under a so-called 'fast-track' process to Congress - which could accept it or throw it out, but could not mess about with it.

But the fast-track deadline is 1 March, and the chances of a package being assembled by then are increasingly remote. It could happen - but only if the new president tells his people to get their skates on. The trouble is, no one knows if he will, because he has not so far said what he thinks about Gatt.

If 1 March is missed, Mr Clinton could ask Congress for a six-month extension: a second-best solution, but not disastrous. Or he could ask for a two-year delay. That would give time for every can of Gatt worms to be reopened - and it would be disastrous.