Gatt accord 'the key to a strong Community': Edouard Balladur tells Julian Nundy that trade talks can focus thoughts on Europe's future

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The Independent Online
EDOUARD BALLADUR, the French Prime Minister, said yesterday that current differences over the Gatt talks on international trade should make Europe reflect on the sort of community it wanted to build.

In his first formal interview with foreign newspapers since he became Prime Minister last March, Mr Balladur repeated the constant French position that Paris wanted 'a lasting, fair and balanced' conclusion to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks.

The Uruguay Round of the Gatt talks, which the United States says must be wrapped up by 15 December, is held up in part by France's refusal to accept the Blair House compromise on agriculture negotiated by the European Commission on behalf of EC countries last November.

Mr Balladur would not be drawn on whether the deadline could be met, but said: 'When the decision is taken to accept or reject the accord, the critics will surface. The French understand that there is no place on these subjects for politically motivated debates and electoral manoeuvres. The stakes for France - and for Europe - are too important. It will be with this in mind that the (French) government will decide when the time comes.'

The Gaullist Prime Minister has in the past complained of the 'trap' he was left by the previous Socialist government, which negotiated the reform of the EC's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and was in power when the Commission signed the Blair House accord. With a militant farmers' lobby watching its every move, Gatt is a crucial test of the French government's skills.

There are perceptible signs that members of the centre-right Union for French Democracy, the coalition partners of Mr Balladur's Gaullist RPR, are anxious to conclude a Gatt deal while many Gaullists favour strong French resistance to any compromise.

The French stance, with Paris saying it is prepared to use its veto to stop the Commission signing an overall accord, has led to friction with some of its EC partners, particularly Britain. France also wants cinema and television films kept out of the agreement, fearing American products could swamp the market and destroy part of European culture.

''Do we want to endanger the CAP, Airbus and audiovisual policy?' Mr Balladur said in reply to questions from the Independent and three other European newspapers. 'Would we agree to an organisation of world trade which did not place all states on the same level and allow one or the other to have weapons which the others did not have?'

The Gatt countries were 'so far from an agreement on the organisation of world trade and the elimination of unilateral practices', he said. 'We would like the US, Japan and other countries to show, where the opening up of markets is concerned, a willingness to lower their customs tolls comparable to the efforts already made by the Community. We Europeans want a multilateral agreement on steel accompanied by the lifting of American sanctions.'

In a clear reference to the British government's view of Europe, Mr Balladur said that, of two visions of Europe, one was of 'a big market which would progressively melt into a vast free-trade zone'. The other, he said, would give Europe 'a strong identity and develop common policies. This latter vision, which insists on Europe's ability to play a full role on the international scene, is the one that France has always promoted.'

The Prime Minister said France's position on cinema and television did not represent 'any hostility towards the US and its cinema. It is often excellent and sometimes . . . better received in France than in the US.' The Americans, he said, exported dollars 3.75bn (pounds 2.5bn) worth of films to Europe each year, while Europe sold only dollars 250m (pounds 167m) worth in the US. 'You cannot therefore say that Europe is closed to American productions.'

The release of Jurassic Park in France this week - already re-named Parc Jurassique by Jacques Toubon, the Gaullist Culture Minister - has illustrated French fears of cultural domination in cinema and television. Pitted by French cultural figures against the Steven Spielberg film is Claude Berri's epic Germinal, based on Emile Zola's novel about the misery of a 19th-century mining community and made with government subsidies.

The American cinema took 80 per cent of box office receipts in Europe, Mr Balladur said. 'What do we want? A world monopoly for the big American film companies? The total disappearance of European cinema?'

(Photograph omitted)