Optimism vies with caution over Gatt

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The Independent Online
ON THE eve of an expected Gatt agreement, Edouard Balladur held talks with the French ministers concerned yesterday amid a growing domestic perception that the French-inspired crisis over international commerce had been a false dispute with electoral causes.

The Gaullist Prime Minister also met Sir Leon Brittan, the European Commission's negotiator on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and Peter Sutherland, the Gatt director-general.

Last night Mr Balladur called last week's optimism on the prospect of a Gatt agreement by the 15 December deadline 'excessive'. And Sir Leon, after meeting Mr Balladur, said: 'There are still difficult problems to resolve . . . I am still optimistic.'

By contrast the US Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, was bullish: 'I'm hopeful to conclude on agriculture tomorrow . . . there is not much more to discuss,' he said as he arrived in Brussels from Geneva.

As agreement seemed to be near, French commentators talked of a solution which would respect both the US refusal to renegotiate the Blair House agreement - the compromise on agriculture negotiated by the European Commission in Washington in November 1992 - and the French rejection of it.

If all goes according to plan, a European Union foreign ministers' council in Brussels today will examine a draft agreement which can then go before the European summit at the end of the week. If it is accepted, the 15 December deadline set by the US Congress for agreement can be met.

For a year now, the threat of a French veto has hovered over the conclusion of the Gatt Uruguay Round as, first, the previous Socialist government and, after parliamentary elections in March, the conservative coalition of Mr Balladur, rejected the Blair House agreement.

Mr Balladur himself has been painted as an unwilling participant in the crisis, and anxious to find a face-saving way out. Claude Imbert, editor of Le Point weekly, said over the weekend that the overall effect had been to project a 'lamentable' picture of French diplomacy.

The problem, he said, had initially been caused by poor management of France's Gatt dossier by the Socialist government. This had picked up momentum helped by 'the corocicos (French for 'cock-a-doodle-doo') in the election campaign; agricultural demagogy, with its rustic slogans and manipulated statistics; (and) the panic with which a large part of our media and economic elite retreated into a corner of the nationalist den'.