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President Barack Obama made his first official foreign trip yesterday to long-time ally Canada ("He had us at merci"). Obama sought to reassure Canadian officials on trade, saying he wanted to expand that relationship, not contract it, and that there was nothing in his stimulus bill that would run counter to that goal. Regarding NAFTA, Obama stressed drafting new environmental and labor protection side-agreements to the pact, not renegotiating it as was suggested during his campaign. The two countries committed to working more closely together on research and information-sharing on energy and technology. Canada is America’s largest exporter of oil.
The two leaders clearly disagreed on the contentious issue of whether to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement. Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to renegotiate NAFTA, said he raised with Harper his desire to incorporate side agreements on labour and the environment "so that they can be effectively enforced." But Obama has softened his language from last year's Democratic primary campaign. He said yesterday it is important to "be very careful about any signals of protectionism" when the world is trying to shake off the global recession.
On NAFTA, it is unclear exactly what Obama is seeking, as the two side agreements are already monitored for enforcement by separate secretariats, including a labour co-operation secretariat located in Washington, and one on the environment located in Montreal, with a liaison office in Mexico. Harper said the two had a "good discussion" of Obama's concerns, but he did not welcome any move to reopen NAFTA, noting it is a "very complex agreement."
Harper said he is "confident" the U.S. will adhere to its international trade obligations, but repeated his warning against protectionist measures: "If we pursue stimulus packages the goal of which is to benefit ourselves or to benefit ourselves, worse, at the expense of others, we will deepen the world recession, not solve it."
Free trade, said Harper, has been nothing but mutually beneficial and any trade concerns "are common trade challenges. They are not problems between our countries." (Toronto Star)