Reuters | Mon Apr 21, 2008
U.S. election looms over North American summit
By Deborah Charles and Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) — With the U.S. election looming over their annual summit, North American leaders gather in New Orleans this week for what is expected to be a largely symbolic meeting overshadowed by questions about free trade.
During the two-day meeting that begins on Monday, U.S. President George W. Bush and his Canadian and Mexican counterparts will likely find themselves defending the 14-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which has come under fire in the United States among concerns that the country is already in a recession or headed toward one.
The location of the summit is significant. Bush is hosting the meeting in New Orleans to demonstrate how the city has rebounded since being swamped during Hurricane Katrina.
Bush’s administration was lambasted for its poor response to the August 2005 hurricane — the worst natural disaster in U.S. history — and critics have said recovery has been slow in the city once known for its jazz scene and lively night life.
Aside from showing off the city, analysts expect few concrete results from the "Three Amigos" summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper — in part because Bush is leaving office in January.
"The political environment’s not terribly conducive to any big progress," said Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, a Mexico expert at the Brookings Institution. "The Mexican president already knows that Bush can’t deliver, given his lame-duck status."
"I think what’s most important from the Mexican side is to get some assurances that what was negotiated in NAFTA will not be disturbed in any big way, regardless of what happens in the election."
Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner and Mexico ranks third. Trade between the three countries last year totalled $930 billion and is expected to reach $1 trillion by the end of this year.
Canada and Mexico are also the largest sources of imported energy to the United States, and Canada is the largest supplier of foreign oil.
QUESTIONS OVER NAFTA
Trade issues have been in the spotlight in the U.S. presidential race as Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have appealed for labour backing by promising to renegotiate or even abandon the unpopular NAFTA, citing the loss of roughly 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2000.
Their opposition to NAFTA has caused concern in Canada and Mexico. Obama and Clinton are vying for the Democratic nomination with the winner facing Republican John McCain in the November presidential election to replace Bush.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue warned against reopening NAFTA for labour or environment issues because it could expose the United States to demands to renegotiate other parts on valuable commodities such as oil.
"They would like a much better deal especially on it (oil) and other commodities," he said.
U.S officials predicted a show of support for regional free trade.
"I think the leaders will emerge with a very strong commitment to free trade," said Thomas Shannon, assistant U.S. secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs.
The three leaders will also discuss ways to improve their economic and security relationships and talk about the environment and ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
They are also expected to discuss regulatory cooperation; how to better harmonize energy efficiency standards and how to coordinate efforts to prevent unsafe food and products from entering North America.