Stop the Trade War before It Starts

November 10, 1992

The hated "Anglo-Saxons" cannot hope to impose a trade accord on a French government embroiled in domestic politics and quaking with fear that its coddled farmers might send in their tractors to tear up the Champs Elysees again. If a trans-Atlantic trade war is to be averted, it will require the tough intervention of the "continental" powers -- especially Germany.

For starters, the French veto in decisions of the European Community must somehow be circumvented. It is France that sabotaged a soybean agreement with the United States last week, causing the Bush administration to threaten penalties against European white wine imports. It is France that seems willing to let the seven-year effort for worldwide reforms under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade collapse even at great cost to its manufacturing and service industries.

Little help can be expected from Jacques Delors, who hopes to jump two years hence from the presidency of the European Commission to the presidency of France. "The adolescent European Community should be able to say 'no' to big brother" (the United States), he said after the breakdown.

Actually, the only thing "adolescent" about the EC is Mr. Delors himself and French government ministers who parrot his hostility toward Britain and the United States. A far more mature and unemotional attitude is being displayed by such key players as Frans Andriessen, the Dutch EC commissioner for external affairs; Ray MacSharry, the Irish EC agriculture commissioner, and Arthur Dunkel, the Swiss director general of GATT.

Now that the EC has decided to seek new negotiations before the U.S. sanctions take effect Dec. 5, some way must be found to have these officials bypass Mr. Delors. Lines of authority in the European Community are really a series of dots and wiggles, so if German pressure is applied in sufficient quantity, a way might yet be found.

Weak governments are finding it hard to come to grips with post-Cold War realities. Before the U.S. election, President Bush's plummeting prestige was an adverse factor. But by threatening sanctions after France defied GATT-approved compromises, he upheld the credibility of current rules for international trade and thereby strengthened the hand of President-elect Bill Clinton. It was a productive beginning to the transition.

With the world in recession and GATT offering the promise of a $200 billion annual increase in international trade, a trade war would be stupid and intolerable. European leaders need to roll over French intransigence and insist on the kinds of agreements already championed by Mr. MacSharry and Mr. Dunkel. If they can break the deadlock, the United States should then be prepared to respond with flexibility and statesmanship. As even Mr. Delors admits, trade wars are easier to start than stop. This one must not start.

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