WESTERN HEMISPHERE: Canada would dig in heels over NAFTA, Harper warns

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a warning yesterday to future U.S. leaders wanting to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement, saying Canada would drive a tougher bargain because of its position as America's biggest energy supplier.

Mr. Harper made the comments at the end of a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, where the three leaders defended NAFTA against attacks from Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as they seek to become the presidential candidate for the Democratic party.

Asked whether it might not be a bad idea to rethink certain aspects of the deal, Mr. Harper said he was ready for any eventuality, but warned that Canada was in a stronger position than when the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement was negotiated during the 1980s.

“We are a secure, stable [energy] supplier. That is of critical importance to the future of the United States,” Mr. Harper told reporters at the end of the North American leaders' summit known as the Three Amigos. “If we have to look at this kind of an option, I think, quite frankly, we'd be in an even stronger position now than we were 20 years ago, and we'll be in a stronger position in the future.

Mr. Harper said he did not want to reopen NAFTA, but he is not the first Canadian politician to link opening the free-trade deal and energy. International Trade Minister David Emerson did so in February after Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton criticized NAFTA. The agreement prohibits Canada from cutting oil exports to the United States during worldwide shortages unless supplies are also cut in Canada.

The future of NAFTA became a topic of significant discussion in Canada after both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton broached the idea of reopening the deal during the Democratic primaries.

Ms. Clinton's position on the matter is credited with helping her win the Ohio primary last month and giving her campaign a badly needed boost.

Earlier, Mr. Harper and Mr. Calderon were asked whether they have begun to think about how to deal with the new administration that will follow the U.S. presidential election in November.

Mr. Harper said he foresees no difficulties and that any incoming president will quickly realize the importance of the trading relationship between the two countries.

“I anticipate that Canada will have a very productive relationship with the next administration, because I'm confident that, when the facts are looked at, any president – just as any prime minister of Canada – will quickly conclude how critically important NAFTA and our North American, Canadian-American trade relationship are to jobs and prosperity.”

Mr. Calderon said Mexico will have a respectful relationship with whoever leads the U.S.

Answering an unrelated question on rocketing oil prices, Mr. Bush reminded reporters that Canada and Mexico are the greatest suppliers to the United States and that America is grateful for it. He said that the United States is paying the price for not stepping up exploration.

“There's not a lot of excess capacity in the world.”

Mr. Bush also gave a spirited defence of NAFTA, noting that the deal has brought increased wealth to areas such as the U.S.-Texas border. Downgrading NAFTA would cost Mexicans jobs, he said.

“When you're able to export in your neighbourhood, it helps to create jobs,” he said. Consumers also have more options to buy under free trade, he said.

“People who say let's get rid of NAFTA as a throwaway political line must understand this has been good for America.”

Mr. Calderon said amending the deal could increase the thirst for Mexicans to migrate to the United States.

Meanwhile, a political critic of Canada's trade policy with the United States said Mr. Harper appears to have opened the door to a new deal.

“We welcome the fact that he's kicking off the debate,” said Peter Julian, the NDP's critic for international trade. But Mr. Julian said that if the deal is opened, Canadians will want more sovereignty over energy, something Mr. Harper may not accept.

Mr. Bush also took time to upbraid the Democratic-controlled Congress for stalling efforts to sign a free-trade deal with Columbia. Canada is also in the process of trying to ink such a deal. While the three leaders spent much time on free trade, they did not announce any major initiatives on hemispheric co-operation. They have now met four times in efforts to find new ways to streamline areas such as the movement of goods and services across the border and other areas of economic harmonization.

The meetings are coming under increasing criticism from some influential Canadians, who say Canada should shift gears with the next U.S. administration and put the focus on direct Canada-U.S. relations.

Source: Globeandmail|by BRIAN LAGHI

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