Agence France-Presse | 30 January 2009
’Buy American’ stimulus plan riles trade partners
WASHINGTON (AFP) - A new "Buy American" push in President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan is sparking protests about protectionism from US trading partners.
Passage of the 819 billion dollar economic stimulus package Wednesday by the US House of Representatives raised hackles in Europe and Canada, the United States’s biggest trading partner.
Obama has pushed for swift passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as vital to prevent the collapse of the US economy, reeling from the global financial crisis that has thwarted governments’ unprecedented actions to ease the turmoil.
The legislation’s package of tax cuts and spending has moved to the Senate, where lawmakers are working on their own version of the plan.
The bulk of the bill’s spending is aimed at bringing aging infrastructure into the 21st century to preserve and improve the country’s long-term competitiveness in the global economy, creating millions of jobs in the process.
The sweep of projects is broad, from roads, rail, bridges, airports and dams to military construction and housing, among others.
The House-approved plan’s "Buy American" provision generally prohibits the purchase of foreign iron and steel for any infrastructure project in the bill.
The European Union’s trade commissioner, Catherine Ashton, pre-emptively voiced concern about the US measure.
"We are looking into the situation. ... Before we have the final text ... it would be premature to take a stance on it," Ashton’s spokesman, Peter Power, said in Brussels.
"However, the one thing we can be absolutely certain about, is if a bill is passed which prohibits the sale or purchase of European goods on American territory, that is something we will not stand idly by and ignore," he said.
Canada’s government said it is concerned about US protectionism in the economic stimulus and its diplomats were lobbying US makers against the "Buy American" drive.
"We’re always concerned when there are protectionist pressures in the United States," Industry Minister Tony Clement told public broadcaster CBC.
"At the same time the United States has treaty obligations," he said, citing US membership in the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
"And we expect the United States to live up to its treaty obligations of open and fair trade."
About 40 percent of Canadian steel is sold in the United States and Canada imports steel from its southern neighbor.
Clement said Canadian diplomats have been lobbying US lawmakers "to try to persuade them to take that clause out or soften it or at least not make it any tougher in the days ahead."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also plans to bring up the controversial clause in talks with Obama when he visits Ottawa on February 19, he said.
The "Buy American" provision bars spending on any infrastructure project "unless all of the iron and steel used in the project is produced in the United States."
There would be exceptions if the head of the federal department or agency determines that applying the provision "would be inconsistent with the public interest."
Other exceptions would be made if there was an insufficient quantity of US iron and steel of satisfactory quality available and if inclusion of US iron and steel would raise the overall project’s cost by more than 25 percent.
Italian Trade Minister Adolfo Urso warned Monday as the US legislation was being developed: "A dangerous new steel war is looming and we need to counter it with strong and decisive actions."
A European familiar with an EU trade commissioner dinner held the same day said that "one or two delegations signaled that the US recovery package contains seeds of a new steel dispute."
Obama, who criticized international trade agreements, including NAFTA, in his presidential campaign, has wasted no time in taking a tough stance on the trade front since taking office on January 20.
The next day, the Obama administration branded China a currency manipulator, setting the stage for a trade war with the Asian giant which has overtaken Japan as America’s biggest foreign creditor.