The Gatt Deal: Week of fast footwork, beer and skittles

IN A WINDOWLESS room in the United States trade mission, senior aides battled exhaustion by playing skittles with beer bottles and oranges. Sir Leon Brittan and Mickey Kantor argued next door, but the men with the power to make or break a Gatt deal were asleep in a nearby hotel.

The world's most ambitious free- trade deal, involving 116 countries, has been mercilessly lobbied since its inception in 1986 and nowhere more than in the centres that control international commerce - Brussels and Washington.

This was the week the lobbyists decamped to Geneva. A longtime Gatt groupie offered help with identification: 'Gatt isn't about trade, it's about politics and you can tell the guys with the real power - they're the ones with handmade shoes.' Both Sir Leon and Mr Kantor sport expensive footwear well-suited to nimble footwork.

The bulk of the work on the Uruguay Round package was virtually done when talks broke down over agriculture in 1990. Since then argument has ebbed and flowed as to how to resolve the outstanding problems between the two giant trade blocs and then lace the results into a globally-acceptable deal.

The first sign of breakthrough was last Wednesday, when the US and European Union announced they had tidied up the agricultural dossier. This was the concession that saw off French objections and Sir Leon flew to meet Mr Kantor in Geneva to hammer out the rest.

But the deal Sir Leon brought back to the European summit in Brussels at the weekend was only partial - four key obstacles remained: on aircraft, financial services, maritime services and audiovisual issues. In Geneva, delegates grew increasingly impatient 'having to sit at the big table waiting to pick up a few crumbs', as a senior diplomat put it, and began putting conditions on their support for deals already done.

By Sunday night, the European Union had resolved all domestic differences and was pushing for a Gatt conclusion but had, crucially, endorsed a French demand that any audiovisual deal must protect Europe's cultural identity. In Geneva, as negotiations between the main parties moved into their 17th hour, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association, in Geneva all week from Hollywood, met Mr Kantor at least twice and then phoned President Bill Clinton. Mr Clinton phoned John Major, Edouard Balladur, the French Prime Minister, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, but they had been tipped off by Sir Leon to expect the call and stand firm. 'It was a last attempt at steamrolling and it failed,' said a European diplomat.

The weather on Monday was magnificent. It was, they all agreed, a wonderful day for a crisis and flew back to the Brussels rain, where it broke. In the minutes before facing EU foreign ministers, Mr Kantor phoned Washington from Geneva and came back with the message that the US could not accept the EU offer on audiovisual.

Discussions went on in the United States trade mission's offices through the night, breaking off at 9.15am so everyone could wash. At 10am they met again; the final deal was clinched 15 minutes later and they walked out together to face the press.