Trade on the Slow Track

March 20, 1992

Easter may come and go without a new world trade agreement unless a meeting this weekend between President Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl breaks the impasse. Even if a pact miraculously appears, it is doubtful Mr. Bush will take the political risk of trying to get it ratified by an election-year Congress. For several years now, the great industrial nations have lacked the will and the vision to break clear of parochial politics.

That a new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would serve their economic interests is beyond dispute. That it would promote stability in a turbulent world is beyond dispute. But for 5 1/2 years negotiations have dragged on without agreement.

If there is any deadline that is a real deadline, it probably is June 1993, when presidential "fast track" authority to push trade pacts through Congress will disappear. Last year, Mr. Bush had to struggle to prevent Congress from voting negatively to kill an arrangement that other nations believe essential if they are to draft trade pacts with the U.S. that they can consider "done deals."

If the June 1993 deadline passes without action, the White House will have to go through the more difficult process of initiating new "fast track" authority and then getting it passed by Congress. Don't count on it. Recession and protectionism already have made U.S. trade policy more regressive.

If any good is to come from the hardening U.S. position, it is that the European Community might begin dismantling its outrageous agriculture subsidy system -- a system that penalizes European consumers to placate a powerful farm lobby.

That's where the Kohl visit comes in. A fortnight ago, when the president proposed a "generous" compromise to break the U.S.-EC deadlock on agricultural trade, the EC brushed it off as too "modest." But there now are reports Mr. Kohl will offer limits on the volume of EC farm exports in return for a U.S. concession that would permit direct EC payments to European farmers who keep their land out of production. This is a long way from Ronald Reagan's dream of a world free of all farm subsidies. But it is a lot closer to reality.

Despite the new maneuverings, American experts fear time has virtually run out on congressional approval of any agreement in this year. Trade policy is just too sensitive, politically.

We find this whole trade fan dance exasperating, but we don't want the band to stop playing. If and when an agreement comes, it will arrive as one big package to extend world trading rules beyond manufacturing to service industries, intellectual property and agriculture. This goal is so desirable, so compelling, so important to world peace and prosperity that nothing should stand in its way.

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