Major gets first chance to reforge US link

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THE PRIME MINISTER will, on 24 February, become the first European leader to hold talks with President Bill Clinton. Although the Washington meeting is expected to focus on international issues such as Bosnia and the deepening transatlantic trade dispute, it will give both men a chance to dispel rumours of a rift between them.

Speculation of a cooling in the 'special relationship' between Britain and America since Mr Clinton's election has been based on reports that the President was angered by help for George Bush's campaign from Conservative Party advisers. The New York Times, in a semi-humorous piece, put John Major top of Mr Clinton's main enemies.

Before Mr Major, the President will have met only the leaders of neighbouring Canada and Mexico. A summit with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia is expected in the spring, but no date has been fixed.

In the past few days, tensions with all European countries have been exacerbated by the new administration's trade measures, which bar European telecommunication and power generation companies from federal purchasing contracts and place steep duties on steel imports.

There is a chance that by the time Mr Major arrives, solutions to some trade problems will be within reach. Sir Leon Brittan, the EC Trade Commissioner, is to visit Washington 10 days earlier for talks with his US counterpart, Mickey Kantor. Discussions between the US and the EC are due on 16 February on the issue of federal contracts. Sir Leon will also hope to agree a strategy to resolve the Gatt world trade talks, a major foreign policy priority for Britain.