The United States and European Union agreed yesterday that some of the less controversial issues left on the table at the failed World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle can be settled quickly without a new meeting of trade ministers.
Doing so, officials said, will help build momentum toward restarting talks on the tougher questions, such as European agricultural subsidies, which seem to divide the two sides as much as ever.
The new approach was announced after a White House summit between President Clinton and EU President Romano Prodi. The easier steps, such as bringing more openness to WTO proceedings, could be approved by ambassadors at the agency's headquarters in Geneva, without the fanfare of a full Seattle-type meeting, the two sides agreed.
"We need a confidence-rebuilding package," Pascal Lamy, Europe's chief trade negotiator, said in an interview yesterday. Lamy had blamed the collapse of the Seattle talks on American politics, chiefly President Clinton's attempt to get the trade ministers to agree to new rules on labor and environmental standards. He sounded a more conciliatory tone yesterday, saying he wouldn't engage in a "blame game."
But on the tough issues, the two sides continued to restate positions that deadlocked them in Seattle. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told reporters yesterday that Europe needs to formulate "a more realistic agenda."
Citing the EU's desire that WTO standardize rules of competition in member countries, for example, she said, "the key will be the extent of European flexibility on the issue. If Europe remains on the track it was on in Seattle, it will not be possible for another round to come together." The Europeans have similar feelings about American positions.
The Seattle meeting earlier this month was supposed to start a comprehensive "new round" of global trade negotiations. It attracted thousands of demonstrators who feel that the current world trading system benefits mainly wealthy people and countries. Marred by sporadic violence by protesters, tear gas attacks from police, and differences on key issues, the conference collapsed with no agreement on anything.
Yesterday, the United States and Europe reiterated their commitment to try again to get a new round started. Barshefsky had extensive talks with Lamy on specific U.S.-EU disputes, such as rules on banana sales and Europe's refusal to accept U.S. hormone-treated beef.
Again, there was no settlement of differences. They did, however, agree on a framework for previously proposed talks on genetically modified crops.
Yesterday's summit is part of a twice-a-year consultation between the United States and Europe. In addition to trade, talk touched on security issues such as Russia's war against rebels in Chechnya and trade in small arms.
Europe and the United States have both said the WTO could operate more in the open and in Seattle were heading toward agreement for an interim step, the quicker release of confidential WTO documents. The United States also wants the agency's disputes panels to open their proceedings to the public.
Other quick steps that the United States and European Union agreed to yesterday were aimed at getting developing countries "on board" for a new round. In Seattle, the world's poorest countries sought relief from quotas and tariffs to help sell their goods in wealthy countries.
U.S. and European officials said yesterday that they would proceed with granting that relief within the "quad" group of countries, the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan.
The United States and Europe also agreed to help developing countries that have had trouble implementing trade agreements from the last global round of negotiations, which ended in 1994. That was another issue left on the table in Seattle.
Both sides feel that the "social agenda" they put forth in Seattle is as important as ever, Lamy said, but they must narrow differences before a new round of talks can begin.
This agenda included developing some type of system to consider labor standards in world trading rules and assuring that trade rules do not undermine environmental protections. Developing-country delegations opposed labor standards in particular on the grounds that their nations could not meet them and thus would find their products excluded from markets in developed countries.
Yesterday's summit also included a meeting between Clinton and the European leaders and members of the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, a grouping of about 60 U.S. and European consumer groups. They had complained that a counterpart business group routinely has access to the summit leaders; this was the first time the consumer group had the same.
Subjects discussed included genetically modified foods and privacy of electronic data. "If that is the first step in providing parity of access, that's good," said Rhoda Karpatkin, president of Consumers Union of United States, who took part in the meeting.
CAPTION: European Union President Romano Prodi, left, President Clinton and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari talk at the White House yesterday.