LONDON — FRANCE AND Germany have decided that the best way to create a regional European superpower is to launch an undeclared trade war on the United States.
That puts in plain, stark and understandable terms the meaning of a git-GATT-gittle that glazes the eyes when called "the collapse of the Uraguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade." Here's how the war broke out. At last July's economic summit in Houston, France's Francois Mitterrand and Germany's Helmut Kohl assured President Bush that the talks to ease restrictions on world trade, going on for four years, would succeed. That meant a phase-out of the protection of French farmers that raised food prices and walled off our exports.
Ever the good schnook in dealing with our supposed allies, Bush embraced German unification and spoke glowingly of the new Europe as a trading partner. But France's farm lobby leaned on Mitterrand, who promptly caved; Kohl, his own election secure, put proximity over principle and rallied to the French side against the Americans. When our negotiator, Carla Hills, refused to sell out America's interests to the Euro-protectionists, the free-trade talks fell apart.
This break coincided, not by coincidence, with the ouster of the foremost holdout against a political-economic Festung Europa, "Fortress Europe" -- Britain's Margaret Thatcher.
Why did this Thatcher-Tory rape delight Kohl and Mitterrand? Because "Europe" is Germany and France -- "Kohlerrand" -- followed by nine other guys, and by the English-speaking islands across the channel that form a bridge to the United States. To the extent this Franco-German alliance needs a bridge across the Atlantic, Britain is that bridge.
The new prime minister of the United Kingdom, John Major, 47, presents himself as Thatcherism with a human face. At the latest Kohlerrand conference in Rome, the new P.M. acted like Bush espousing Reaganism -- mostly hanging tough in a kinder, gentler way. Major proposed a voluntary common European currency first, essentially living together before marriage, which Kohlerrand will consider.
But on the new man's way out, France's European supercrat, Jacques Delors, hit him in the back of the neck with a brick, warning "If we need to provoke a political crisis, we will do so." The arrogance was galling: any of this British sovereignty stuff, and we'll get you thrown out as we did Thatcher.
This week, Prime Minister Major will travel to Washington to meet President Bush. He will gain deservedly admiring headlines by being the firm ally in the Persian Gulf (even British Labor, mindful of the political disaster that followed its soppiness on the Falklands, has turned hawkish). But out of sound-bite range, the engaging Briton will do his bridge duty for Der Entente, persuading the Americans to save GATT by offering help to subsidized French farmers.
Bush is expected to accommodate him, to undercut the hard-line Mrs. Hills, and to dispatch a Cabinet deal-cutter to "save GATT" before a March 1 deadline brings on the dreaded U.S. congressional oversight. The American president is too preoccupied with his eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Saddam Hussein and his mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of Mikhail Gorbachev at a Moscow summit to entertain a trade war at this time.
But we have been brought to that brink by the Kohlerrand regional isolationism. The cement that has held Europe together for the past generation has been fear of an expansionist Soviet Union; the cement binding it now is envy of a prosperous America and Japan.
Not every war is hell; we need not respond to Europe's shortsighted economic regionhood by wringing our hands and predicting dire consequences in a world given over to the tariff-mongering Helmut Smoot and Francois Hawley.
Instead, realistic Americans should counterbalance Europe's penchant for protection by promoting free trade and food production within the Western Hemisphere, and by offering the incipient third grouping, the Asians, the choice of open intercourse or risky retaliation.
Europe's threatened goodbye to GATT need not mean a farewell to free trade. We can make it mean that the new world marketing order will find an efficient competitor in what used to be called the New World.