Green Haze over NAFTA


As the United States, Canada and Mexico begin negotiations on supplemental environmental accords to the pending North American Free Trade Agreements, it is important to keep in mind just why these discussions are taking place. They represent a laudable effort by the Clinton administration to placate a host of Democratic lawmakers, most of them protectionists at heart, who simply want to kill the treaty.

Unfortunately, Maryland Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes seem to be part of this group. Just the other day they signed on to a letter from Sen. Donald W. Riegle, D-Mich., which stated that "the NAFTA, as it currently stands, fails to serve American interests in environmental protection." To which we reply, "Balder--."

The treaty has been rightly called the "greenest" trade pact ever negotiated. So why is there such a "curious hullabaloo?" asks Sen. John Chafee, R.-R.I. He finds his answer in the Riegle list. Of the 25 senators who signed it, 18 voted against legislation that enabled the Bush administration to draft a pact that has to be voted up or down, without being picked apart, within a "fast track" period. These same 18 -- and Senators Mikulski and Sarbanes are among them -- may well fit Senator Chafee's description of lawmakers who "will grab any rationale, including becoming born-again environmentalists" to defeat NAFTA.

Even if one takes environmental objections at face value, the campaign of the naysayers falls flat. As a Third World country, Mexico obviously lags way behind U.S. standards in many areas. But the key question is how this gap is to be narrowed. Is it by encouraging Mexico to open its economy to foreign investment and trade so it will accumulate the means to improve its environment and treat its workers better? Or is it to slam the

door in the face of Mexico's remarkable reforms and let that nation lapse into old ways, a source of relentless illegal immigration and potential instability?

President Clinton, in one of the bravest moments of his campaign for the White House, endorsed the NAFTA treaty precisely as it was written by his election foe, George Bush. Since then, his special trade representative, Mickey Kantor, has told Congress that the president will not reopen NAFTA itself and wants to have it enacted and in force by next New Year's Day.

To keep Democratic legislators assuaged, Mr. Kantor has warned he will "walk away from the table" if Canada and Mexico balk at creating trilateral commissions with real substantive powers. But he also warns he has to "walk the thin line" so as not to infringe U.S. federal or state sovereignty.

It is ironic that while sentiment about the president's economic reform package falls strictly along partisan lines, Mr. Clinton will get his staunchest support on NAFTA from Republicans and from those Democrats who realize this nation's future is best guaranteed in a world with liberalized trade, capital and information flows.

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