U.S., France signal trade compromise

December 01, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration suggested yesterday that it saw new room for compromise with France in a lingering standoff that has been the major obstacle to an international agreement on lowering trade barriers.

With negotiations on the accord -- under the aegis of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade -- entering a final phase, conciliatory signals from both the United States and France contributed to a new sense of optimism among delegates that a settlement might be reached by a deadline that is now two weeks away.

"There is an increasing belief that the round not only has to be, but will be, concluded," Peter Sutherland, the director general of GATT, said at the organization's headquarters in Geneva yesterday.

And in an interview published yesterday in the Washington Post, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur of France said his government was willing to relax its rigid stance in an agricultural dispute with the United States that has been the main stumbling block to the agreement.

U.S. officials quickly welcomed the statement, and both U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said the administration would be willing, in turn, to show flexibility of its own.

Mr. Kantor expressed hope that the United States and the 12-nation European Community could now reach agreement on at least the outline of an accord in two days of discussions that resume today in Brussels, Belgium.

"I'm not pessimistic," he said yesterday afternoon before flying to Europe for talks with Sir Leon Brittan, the European Community's trade commissioner. There is "a lot of flexibility" in the American position, Mr. Kantor said.

The global free trade talks have foundered for most of the seven years since they began in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 1986.

But they were lent urgency this year when Congress gave President Clinton a Dec. 15 deadline, by when administration officials must either conclude a treaty or the president would lose the power granted by Congress to conduct expedited negotiations.

Because this deadline was set only in one country, a failure to reach agreement by then would not necessarily mean the end of the talks. But most trade experts fear that it would compound the difficulties of winning U.S. approval of any agreement, since it would require new action in an already reluctant Congress.

If an accord is concluded by Dec. 15, Congress would not be permitted to amend it when voting on approval. If it is not completed by then, Mr. Clinton would be required to seek renewal from Congress of his "fast track" authority.

At a joint news conference with Central American's leaders yesterday morning, the president described the task of winning agreement on the global accord as his "preoccupation." And while Mr. Kantor emphasized that the United States sought "a good agreement, not just any agreement," he also issued a new reminder about the stakes.

Mr. Kantor contended that an accord would be worth as much $6 trillion worldwide in the next decade.

The comments by Mr. Balladur, carried in news reports, were significant because they suggested that France would be willing to back off its demand for renegotiation of a deal struck last year as part of the GATT talks that would impose strict limits on the subsidies a country can pay to its farmers.

Mr. Balladur said that changes to that agreement could be termed clarifications or amplifications.

The French government has expressed bitter opposition to limiting farm subsidies, but the United States refuses to renegotiate the draft agreement. Now, with both countries moving toward flexibility, a senior administration official predicted that Mr. Kantor would spend the next two or three days "trying to hammer out a comprehensive deal with the Europeans."

Among other signs pointing toward a possible breakthrough on trade issues, administration officials said, were indications that Japan might agree to open its rice market to foreign suppliers, a goal of U.S. trade policy throughout the Uruguay round of talks.

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