The insurgent millionaire comes unstuck

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The Independent Online
THERE was a television debate. It happened in another country. The tree-hugger won and a cross little gumboil lost. So what? Why should an enounter between the US Vice-President, Al Gore, and the insurgent populist Ross Perot matter to Britain? Especially since it was all about the North American Free Trade Agreement?

Yet for anyone in Britain alert to real politics, the Gore-Perot confrontation was the most significant event of the past few days. It was

a preview of arguments that will eventually rage on this side of the herring-pond, too. It was about the nature of the United States in the Nineties. It was also about the future of world trade, on which millions of jobs and billions of dollars depend.

The Gore-Perot debate on CNN's Larry King Show was also great television. The blandly good-looking vice-president had to beat the millionaire populist. He did. Failure would finally have sealed the fate of Nafta, the proposed free trade deal between Canada, Mexico and the US. This will be decided by Congress in six days' time and Bill Clinton is said to be short of about two dozen votes at present. If Nafta is defeated, the Gatt world trade talks, with their own Congressional deadline of 15 December, look doomed. That would lose us pounds 270bn in extra world growth by 2002, according to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Even Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister and no Gatt idealist, agrees Gatt would 'have favourable consequences for growth and employment' and thinks 'withdrawing into ourselves would be suicidal'.

So that Nafta vote is serious stuff: a cliffhanger that makes John Major's close squeak on Maastricht look relatively minor. But as we shall see, there are parallels between the two events.

The first thing to note is how similar the economic arguments are in America and Europe. When Perot and the anti-Nafta movement attacks Mexico as a dirty, impoverished and only partially democratic country with which the US should not freely trade, they are using arguments that will become familiar in Europe. Why should recession-hit Western economies export capital or buy products from low-wage, polluted Eastern Europe?

Perot's prophecy of a 'giant sucking sound' as jobs and factories move south to Mexico is already being echoed by alarmist Germans worried about cheap labour in Eastern and Southern Europe. Less alarmist Germans respond, just like the Clinton presidency, by assuring their compatriots that productivity at home is so much higher that it won't be a problem.

The American arguments about halting immigration by 'wetback' Mexicans through trade and rising prosperity at home are the same as the case for preventing migrations of Romanians or Poles by signing trade deals between the European Union and countries to the east. Again, the environmental case against shutting the door on poorer economies is the same whether you are worried about the stench of Rio Grande or belching Polish factories.

And because the debate is the same, the contradictions of the anti- trade side are equally stark in Europe and America. Ross Perot wants to put high tariffs on Mexican imports until Mexican workers are paid the same as American ones. How, if their country cannot sell readily into a vast, rich, neighbouring country, are these wretched Mexicans supposed to earn their higher wages? Similarly, if we decide to reject goods from the east, we help to condemn these countries to poverty and despair.

The arguments in the Gore-Perot debate were, then, directly relevant to European politics. But so was its context. Perot has to be confronted by the administration because he is riding a populist wave that could destroy Nafta. This wave is rising almost everywhere in the Western democracies, from Perot's own United We Stand America, to the radicals and nationalists who helped to destroy the Canadian Conservatives, and the right-wing and regional parties on the rise throughout Europe.

Most of these groups accuse the governing elites of something close to treason, of flouncing about in an abstracted, head-in-the-clouds world while forgetting the ordinary voter. This week Perot hissed that 'we are being sold out to foreign lobbyists' and warned Congressmen backing Nafta that they would be destroyed in the 1994 elections: 'our people' were angry and would 'remember in November'.

It's the same tone that is used by Europe's nationalists when they talk about the arrogant elites of Brussels. The anti-Nafta movement is broader than the anti- Maastricht one, but there are striking similarities: the same odd alliance of the left-wing and the nationalistic right; the same deluded claim that these are 'little people' fighting an undemocratic corporate conspiracy; the same detestation of supra-nationalism.

So it was good to see Perot being hammered: there was just the first hint of American populism in prime-time retreat. He betrayed all the signs of a television loser - dodging questions, repeating himself, whingeing about the rules of the debate and rambling. When Gore reminded viewers that Perot had told them on the very same show that 40,000 American soldiers would die in the Gulf war, and that 100 US banks would fail if Clinton came to power, the insurgent millionaire looked sick and stumped. If I was an American voter, I think I'd find it hard to take Mr Perot seriously ever again.

One TV debate does not a sea- change make, even in the United States. It is wholly possible that it won't have much impact on heavily lobbied Congressmen and that Nafta will fall. It is probable that this would be followed by the collapse of Gatt and the biggest crisis for world trade in half a century. But the humiliation of Perot, who smiles and smiles and is pernicious, was one bright spot in a gloomy world.