Staff writer

How good an excuse does a Cabinet minister need to skip out on Diet sessions on the national budget?

An answer to that may lie in the government’s request to allow three Cabinet members to leave for Seattle ahead of the opening of the World Trade Organization’s summit from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3.

The trip is set to coincide with the Lower House Budget Committee’s deliberations on the fiscal 1999 second supplementary budget.

Even if ongoing sessions proceed smoothly, the budget committee won’t deliberate on the supplementary budget until Tuesday, when the Diet may call on the three — Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, trade chief Takashi Fukaya, and agriculture minister Tokuichiro Tamazawa — to join the talks.

If this happens, the Cabinet members will be prevented from participating in crucial talks with their WTO counterparts prior to the opening of the Seattle summit.

The 135-member WTO is expected to hammer out a ministerial declaration in Seattle as a springboard for the new round of WTO market-access and rule-making negotiations to be launched thereafter.

The recent failure of the WTO to draft the declaration has added importance to ministerial-level negotiations in Seattle on such problems as agriculture and the difficulty some developing countries still face in implementing the former Uruguay Round agreements.

“Without an (effective) draft declaration, things are in a state of chaos,” Fukaya told a press conference Friday. “WTO ministers will have to enter heated negotiations from the beginning.”

To get an early start, key figures such as Pascal Lamy, EU commissioner for trade, will arrive in Seattle on Sunday. Fukaya said Lamy has urged him to come along to cement Japan-EU understanding, adding that the two partners can fight together against protectionist views held by the United States.

Fukaya went on to express concern about whether the Diet will allow him and his fellow ministers to leave early for Seattle for the sake of “national interests,” saying that the successful launch of the new WTO round is a must for Japan as a leading trading nation.

“In general, all the ministers are expected at the budget committee meeting,” said a committee official. “Whether parliamentary vice ministers can stand in or not will depend on negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition.”

The official said that attending an important international meeting might be an acceptable excuse.

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