EU closes ranks as Gatt deadline looms: Ministers blame US as talks continue to falter

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A SHOW of European unity and a threat to America yesterday pointed to a tough conclusion to world trade talks.

Foreign ministers of the European Union (EU), meeting in Brussels, said the main responsibility for whether a global pact was reached now lay with the United States. Sir Leon Brittan is to go to Washington around 22 November to discuss the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). EU ministers said they wanted the broad outlines of a deal clear by the end of November, and they will then regroup, probably on 2 December.

Talks must be wrapped up by 15 December when US special negotiating powers run out. But before then President Bill Clinton faces a tough clash with Congress over the North American Free Trade Agreement on 17 November, a clash that he may lose. Yesterday the Europeans accused the US administration of concentrating on this at the expense of Gatt, while continuing to stress the 15 December deadline.

'We are the pate in the sandwich,' said Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister. 'The period has been one of lack of movement - lack of movement essentially because of the American preoccupation with Nafta,' said Sir Leon, the EU's external trade Commissioner. He had wanted to go to the US earlier, but was dissuaded by Washington.

The December meeting would happen on the fringes of a gathering of Nato foreign ministers, emphasising the strain that failure would have on transatlantic relations.

Ray Seitz, the US ambassador in London, yesterday told journalists that defence and trade would become interlinked if the Gatt talks fail. 'Political realities will not keep them apart,' he was quoted as saying.

But in Brussels the emphasis was firmly on the US failures. 'If we are making no progress it is because the Americans refuse to negotiate,' Mr Juppe said. Sir Leon said Europe had put forward an offer on opening its markets but the US had not responded.

European divisions over Gatt have now faded rapidly. The Twelve have now rallied around, with concessions on both sides keeping France in line with its partners. The Commission has said it will push ahead with plans to toughen its trade retaliation armoury. It has also agreed that any Gatt deal would be subject to a veto from any member state. And by agreeing that ministers will meet again in December French concerns that they would be pushed into a deal that had already been agreed, putting them in a take-it-or-leave it situation, have been assuaged.

For their part the French are now saying publicly that they do not want to renegotiate an earlier US-EC farm deal, just to clarify it.

They are being less aggressive over trade in audiovisual services - things like film and television. And they are allowing the Commission valuable room for manoeuvre, not tying their hands with a fresh negotiating mandate.

Above all, the new focus on attacking the Americans suits the French and their partners. 'When you bash the Yanks, you get French support,' said one European official.