EU agricultural reform starts to bite: US and European negotiators have 24 hours to revise Blair House agreement and find formula to end the impasse over Gatt

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The Independent Online
IN A scarcely coded message to the senior United States and European Union negotiators engaged in a make-or-break attempt to end the Gatt world trade impasse in Brussels today, the European Commission has produced figures to show that its controversial agricultural reforms are working.

The EU grain mountain is shrinking and cereal production this year will be lower than it would have been without the 1992 reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This happy news should provide Europe's chief trade negotiator, Sir Leon Brittan, with a powerful weapon when he and his US counterpart, Mickey Kantor, sit down today.

The US has complained that unfair farm subsidies result in over- production and distort trade. France complains that the Blair House agreement on reducing subsidised exports goes way beyond the cuts already implicit in CAP reform. The Commission insists this is not the case; its timely analysis answers both critics by showing the US that production is coming down, and proving to France's outraged farmers that CAP reform is compatible with the much- maligned Blair House agreement.

Today, Sir Leon and Mickey Kantor have roughly 24 hours to come up with a revision of Blair House that for the US will not amount to a renegotiation of the basic deal. Yet Sir Leon must wring enough concessions - possibly in the form of trade-offs in other areas - to satisfy the French. European foreign ministers meet tomorrow specifically to discuss Gatt, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and to have the farm deal sewn up by then would greatly enhance the likelihood of real progress in other contentious sectors.

The main protagonists in the Gatt drama have been turning up the political heat all week. Behind the scenes, France - while publicly vociferous on the necessity of defending its national interest - has been trying to prepare its powerful agriculture lobby for the inevitability of a Gatt deal from which the country, overall, has much to gain. Bonn, as Paris' most powerful ally, has been asked by the rest of the EU to use this week's Franco-German summit to lean on the government of Edouard Balladur.

The political stakes have been stated as dramatically as possible to hammer home the need for compromise on both sides. 'There are only two possible scenarios,' Sir Leon declared yesterday, 'success or damaging failure . . . there must be global agreement or nothing.'

In Paris yesterday it fell to Jacques Delors, a Frenchman, to set out the endgame. The ball was, he said, in the Americans' court, noting that 'they are beginning to move'. He added: 'We are waiting for the US to fulfil its promises concerning market access and, most importantly for Europe, services.' No mention of agriculture.

Assuming a farm deal is in the works, the European tactic seems to be to create a united European front in demanding - with much political rhetoric - movement from the Americans in areas where the US has already privately indicated there could be concessions. The delicate negotiation could yet unravel, but Brussels officials and European diplomats were yesterday, after seven years, cautiously suggesting that the end may be in sight.

Heavy snow and ice closed Belgium's national airport yesterday, disrupting the schedules of a string of foreign and local dignitaries, Reuter reports. A Sabena spokeswoman said the airport was closed until further notice.