Obama wants to reopen NAFTA but keep trade flowing

Tue Feb 17, 2009 9:01pm EST
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By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he still wants to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite a warning from Canada that this would be a mistake, but he said he did not want to end up curbing trade.

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, shortly before his visit to Ottawa on Thursday, Obama also declined to characterize oil from Canada's vast oil sands region as "dirty oil" which should somehow be curtailed.

Obama had alarmed Canada during the Democratic primaries last year when he advocated renegotiating NAFTA, and he reiterated this goal on Tuesday while recognizing these were sensitive economic times.

"As I've said before, NAFTA, the basic framework of the agreement, has environmental and labor protections as side agreements. My argument has always been that we might as well incorporate them into the full agreement so that they're fully enforceable," he said in the interview with CBC television.

However, he also said: "I think there are a lot of sensitivities right now because of the huge decline in world trade."

Obama noted there was $1.5 billion in trade between Canada and the United States every day, adding: "It is not in anybody's interest to see that trade diminish."

When Obama raised the issue of toughening up NAFTA on the campaign trail a year ago, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said if Washington "made the mistake" of opening the agreement, Ottawa would bring other issues to the table for renegotiation.

Later in the year Harper said Canada's energy exports to the United States would enable it to negotiate from a position of strength.   Continued...

<p>President Barack Obama returns from a weekend visit in Chicago to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, February 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst</p>