Special Summit on Trade?

July 23, 1991

If world trade talks are to succeed this year where they failed last year, there may have to be a special Group of Seven economic summit to knock heads together and force negotiators to closure. This was proclaimed at the London summit last week. It is an excellent idea, and it would have made big news if Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev were not on the premises rattling his tin cup.

What the leaders of the world's richest industrial democracies were facing on the trade issue was nothing less than a crisis in credibility. In 1990, at Houston, they promised a happy ending by year's end in Uruguay Round negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Instead, there was debacle.

This time, stepping up the rhetoric, the assembled heads of government declared: "We shall remain personally involved in this process, ready to intervene with one another if differences can only be resolved at the highest level." British Prime Minister John Major said he was prepared to call a special summit if necessary. On such an occasion the world would learn if outstanding trade disputes can be resolved even at the highest level.

There is much room for doubt. European Community agriculture ministers have been unable to settle their own internal differences, which are minuscule when compared to the EC's on-going brawl with the United States and other major grain-exporting countries. The United States, while scaling down its lofty goal of ending all farm tariffs and subsidies by century's end, has been eager to identify agriculture as the key sticking point in GATT negotiations, which it is.

Instead, the London summiteers merely made agriculture one of four elements, along with market access, services and intellectual property, which, "taken together," would add up to the kind of "ambitious, global and balanced package" originally sought. Unfortunately, this expansiveness was mainly an effort to soothe European feelings, which rub raw on the highly political matter of high prices for a coddled agriculture sector.

The Group of Seven summit was quite right in its declaration that "no issue has more far-reaching implications for the future prospects of the world economy than the successful conclusion of the Uruguay Round." But until this "successful conclusion" happens, skepticism should be the order of the day.

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