TOP US and EU trade negotiators appear to have made some progress in two days of painstaking talks here. But there is no guarantee their efforts will nail down agreement on a new Gatt round lowering world trade barriers before the deadline of 15 December.
Speaking last night after his meetings with his US opposite number Mickey Kantor, the EU's Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan warned there was still 'a long way to go' to resolve outstanding differences, above all on agriculture, and access to each other's financial and audio-visual markets. But the discussions were 'pointing in the direction of agreement'. Both men, he insisted, felt a deal could yet be struck in time.
The most hopeful sign is that the two sides are stepping up the pace of their encounters. Although Sir Leon was returning to Europe last night after a scheduled session at the White House with President Bill Clinton, several EU officials will stay on in Washington to try to thrash out what Mr Kantor called 'the outline of a preliminary package'.
If they can do so, then there is a realistic chance that Americans and Europeans will be able to seal a breakthrough when the US Trade Representative travels to Brussels next week. That could enable an understanding to be approved by the full 110-nation Gatt forum in Geneva by mid-December, allowing Gatt to be kept on the 'fast track' for endorsement by the US Congress.
The stakes are enormous - measured both by the dollars 270bn (pounds 183bn) boost to world trade that economists reckon would be gained by a successful outcome, and by the psychological blow that failure would deliver to a global economy struggling to shake free of recession.
The devil, though, lies in the detail, as evidenced by the refusal of both Sir Leon and Mr Kantor to get into the specifics of outstanding problems. Whatever understanding emerges must win the blessing of the 12 EU governments, and France in particular, has made clear Washington must make concessions on the cuts in farm subsidies at the 'Blair House' agreement of 1992.
In public, the US refuses any 're-opening' of Blair House. Privately, however, contacts have taken place over what is termed 'clarification' of that accord. Other problems have arisen since, ranging from French demands for protection of its television and film markets to the US's long-standing demands for easier access to the European market for financial services.
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