The gavel descends and Gatt becomes history: It's 'sayonara' to Uruguay Round and hello to World Trade Organisation

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The Independent Online
THE GATT talks went out with a bang and a whimper of relief when, at 7.35 last night, the Gatt Director-General, Peter Sutherland, brought down his gavel on seven years of the most complex trade negotiations to date.

A packed and weary conference, having given silent assent to the document entitled 'Final Act Embodying The Results of the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations', gave a standing ovation to the man whose chairmanship of negotiations is credited with having brought the talks to a successful conclusion on deadline.

'Today will be seen as a defining moment in modern economic and political history,' he said, distilling the problems of the post-Cold War world order as the choice between protectionism or inter-dependence. 'Trade binds people together. Today the World has chosen openness and co-operation instead of uncertainty and conflict.' The Malaysian ambassador exhorted his colleagues to 'say sayonara to the Uruguay Round', a timely reminder that Asian agriculture and industry overall stands to gain much from the opening up of world trade, though at great political cost.

As Mr Sutherland's gavel hit the table, Gatt itself died. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was set up in 1947 on a temporary basis, pending the establishment of a world trade organisation - the third pillar of the Bretton Woods system for managing the post- Second World War economy that included the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Nearly half a century later the Uruguay Round has created a World Trade Organisation (WTO) which will absorb Gatt to become the umbrella authority responsible for policing international commerce.

But the exuberance (celebrated appropriately in champagne) that the General Agreement to Talk and Talk has finally fallen silent could not hide the frustration at what one delegate called the 'last-minute pirouettes' of the US and the European Union.

A senior Asian delegate spoke bitterly of the treatment meted out 'by the former colonial powers to their one-time subjects'.

He complained that over the last week, Brussels and Washington had repeatedly re-opened deals that had been supposedly done, making a mockery of multilateralism. The bitterness soured the round to the very end; a final agreement on textiles was not concluded until 4am after India and Pakistan, as leading producers, managed to fight off an attempt by the US and the EU to prise open their markets even further.

The Malaysian ambassador, Haroon Siraj, told his colleagues the developing countries resented the 'lack of consideration'. He expressed disappointment with a services package that falls far short of expectations. Privately, there was much relief that the financial services dossier has been resolved in such a way that the US and EU have agreed to wait 18 months before deciding whether or not to restrict full market access only to those that offer American companies reciprocal rights. This temporarily sidelines the hated 'two-tier' approach and wins valuable time for Asia.

Yesterday was a beginning, not an end. All Gatt parties must now ratify the Final Act before April next year and it will be two years before the measures begin to take effect. The passage of Gatt through the US Congress will be as difficult as that of Nafta.

Environmental lobbyists hope that between now and April they can 'green' a document which, as it stands, does little for the environment. 'The Uruguay Round is 50 years out of date; it reflects a time when everyone believed there should be no restrictions on growth; that argument has been long discredited,' said a Greenpeace spokesman yesterday. The aim of Greenpeace and the other lobbies is to turn the environmental working group, which the Gatt secretariat has already set up, into a permanent committee within the WTO, so that subsequent rules on environmental protection can be made legally binding on 117 nations and globally enforced.

Hamish McRae, page 20

(Photograph omitted)

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