Leading Article: Facing the foes of free trade

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The Independent Online
THE FORTNIGHT before Christmas, the year's most frenzied shopping period, is just the right time for negotiators to be concluding a seven-year round of international trade talks. For the freeing of trade since the Second World War has brought radical change to our lives as shoppers. Without it, there would be no out- of-season fruits and vegetables in the supermarkets; no easy changing of pounds into francs for day trips to Calais; no surfeit of cars or electronic games to choose from.

It is the freedom to buy things from all over the world, rather than dry statistics on GNP or export growth, that should bring home to ordinary consumers the importance of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations. For seven years, diplomats in Geneva have haggled in scores of committees to win agreement on a single package that will make it easier for goods and services to be traded across borders.

Barring last-minute hitches before today's 5am GMT deadline, 115 countries will have agreed to reduce barriers to each other's exports - not only in traditional manufactured goods, but also in services, farm products, patents and copyrights. Less obvious barriers to free trade, such as subsidies and obstructive customs and legal procedures, are also covered. True, the United States and Europe could not agree on films; but failure there is a modest price to pay for a wider success.

Amid the triumph, however, it is worth asking why this round was slower and more bitter than its predecessors. In part, this is because new areas have been brought under international jurisdiction which were until recently the preserve of national governments, making negotiations more complicated.

In theory, there should be no need for trade negotiations. Classical economics tells us that all countries - no matter how poor their citizens or how inefficient their industries - benefit from free trade, because competition from outside helps to direct money and skills to the businesses that will use them most efficiently, and thus makes the entire society richer. The talks are there to reassure the minority who will lose from free trade that other minorities abroad are also being made to suffer.

The current round has challenged more powerful, and more vocal, minorities than its predecessors. Farmers have been able to pose as the guardians of rural tradition - even in Japan, where the staple food costs six times more than it should. Film-makers not previously known for their patriotism have wrapped themselves in the flag of national culture. In Asia, even financiers - a much-reviled group - have been able to pose as Davids facing attack from an American Goliath.

Future rounds will face still stronger foes. But free trade can win if governments make their arguments better in public, and bring consumers into the process to face down producer pressure. Doing so will ensure that in future good sense prevails as a matter of certainty rather than of chance.