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Business executives plan to stress free trade to Bush, Harper, Calderon

Globe and Mail | April 19, 2008

Business executives plan to stress free trade to Bush, Harper, Calderon


OTTAWA - Leading business executives will try to rally North American leaders against increasing protectionist sentiment next week by issuing a call for greater co-operation in the face of cries by Democratic presidential candidates to review free trade.

The call will be included in a report to be presented Tuesday to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon when they hold their Three Amigos Summit in New Orleans.

The report, written by a council of executives from all three countries, is also expected to include a request that the annual summit not be derailed as the United States elects a new president this year and protectionist sentiment increases. Although the free-trade issue is expected to be only a small part of the report, the executives are concerned about increasing rhetoric on the issue and want more, not less, co-operation between the three countries.

Corporate leaders, who form the North American Competitiveness Council, are concerned about increasing attitudes to curtail the free flow of goods and services, and don’t want that to derail the annual meeting.

“The idea of a formal commitment to a summit on a regular basis, preferably, more or less, around the same time of year, creates a momentum that is very helpful,” said Tom d’Aquino, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

Regular summit meetings compel bureaucrats working on the various files to meet certain hard deadlines, he said.

“When two presidents and a prime minister get together, people are groaning to zero in on issues to demonstrate that they’re making progress.”

Sources said the executives are also expected to address recent calls that the North American free-trade agreement be renegotiated by expressing concern about anti-NAFTA rhetoric - “a lot of it based by very weak facts.”

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have said that NAFTA needs to be looked at again, a view that has caused some concern among Canadian entrepreneurs.

Mr. d’Aquino said the executives will argue that, more than ever, the three countries need to work closely together to deal with increasing competition, primarily from Asia.

Sources said the executives don’t want to make free trade the main issue of their report, lest it fan the flames of a debate that they don’t want to see reopened.

The references to free trade have been softened from earlier drafts of the report. Nonetheless, the issue will almost certainly emerge as the Canadian and Mexican governments prepare for the possibility the United States will elect a Democratic president in November.

But sources said not to expect major announcements from the summit, and that Canadian issues will almost certainly play second fiddle to those of the Mexican-U.S. border.

Canadian senior officials said the agenda will include product and food safety, sustainable energy development, the environment, emergency preparedness and easing rules for border crossing while maintaining security.

Mr. Harper will meet with both Mr. Bush and Mr. Calderon privately before the official summit begins.

 source: Globe and Mail