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Saturday, 4 December, 1999, 12:47 GMT
The waiting game
Seattle street Life goes on in Seattle as ministers fight it out

Trade ministers pushed their negotiations in Seattle to the wire - but this time, unlike in the past, there was no last minute deal. As our North America business correspondent Richard Quest reports from the WTO meeting, waiting until the end is the rule.

When it comes to trade talks there seems to be one, overriding rule - last-minute brinkmanship.

It is a trend that has been noted again and again.

"Everyone wants to get more than they have," said Keith Rockwell, press spokesman at the WTO.

"It's the nature to wait until the time has almost run out."

richard quest Richard Quest: We may now get some agreement at long last
I first noticed this during the farm talks between the US and EU in 1992. It was after months of talks, in the middle of the night just before the midnight deadline for sanctions when the two sides finally reached a deal that became the Blair House Agreement.

Why, one wondered couldn't it have been reached before?

Then, in the Uruguay Round under the GATT. After eight years ... that's right, eight years ... the deal was done only after the chairman stopped the clock in the final meetings in Marrakech.

What had the negotiators been doing until then?

Whether it is the beef or banana row between the EU and US, it takes a deadline and threat of sanctions before the two sides finally gets serious (and even then there is no guarantee) .

So it is in Seattle

The negotiators have had four years to think about an agenda for the next major round of trade talks - and several months of preliminary meetings in Geneva to set the agenda.

They failed there because they knew they had another chance in Seattle.

It is only when it is the absolute, total, final last chance that something generally gets done.

In Beijing last month, the US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was about to leave for the airport to return home when the Chinese made concessions that enabled them to sign the trade agreement for WTO membership.

Ms Barshefksy's number two, Richard Fisher admits this is part of negotiating life.

"It's the way these organisations always work. Every trade negotiation I have been involved with always goes down to the last minute - people don't move until they have to."

But at Seattle, with so many interests competing with each other, not even the risk of failure produced the final deal.

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See also:
24 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Trade blocs and bullies
03 Dec 99 |  Business
Crunch time for WTO talks

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