Emerson on NAFTA's imminent demise

Senators Obama and Clinton, appealing to Democratic voters in a Rust Belt state where manufacturing jobs are evaporating, are avowing that one of the first things they’ll do upon winning the White House is to take the United States out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. ‘Course, if the problem is lost manufacturing jobs, that ain’t going to bring any jobs back nor is it likely to prevent more from disappearing.

In any event, here in Ottawa, we’ve spent a lot of time today talking to people about what, if anything, it might mean if NAFTA unravels and/or re-ravels in the wake of a Democrat taking the White House.

Jayson Myers, an economist and president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters says the NAFTA comments are symptomatic of increasing protectionist sentiment in the U.S. across a wide range of issues. “The deeper point here is not really about NAFTA. NAFTA is the lightning rod for some pretty tough grassroots protectionism,” Myers said.

And here’s International Trade Minister David Emerson, in a scrum with reporters outside the weekly Conservative caucus meeting, picking up on what Jay said:

“Well, I've been very concerned for a couple of years now.  This rhetoric of protectionism has been creeping — it's been getting more strident. It's permeating Congress.  Protectionist groups are flexing their muscle and it's not just the heat of the presidential campaign that is causing concern, it's the whole congressional system.

Reporter:  So you're not prepared to shrug this off as election politics in the U.S. and Democrats trying to appeal to blue collar workers.

Emerson: No, I don't think so.  I mean clearly there's a political element to it but I think it's reflective of a broader grassroots mood in the United States that I frankly think is based on a number of people that are very visible and high profile spreading an awful lot of disinformation.  And, you know, I think the United States when it comes right down to it have got to sharpen their pencils and their analysis and they're going to realize that maybe this isn't such a great idea.

Me:   Minister, are there some industrial sectors in Canada that might be at particular risk if NAFTA unravels?

Emerson: I wouldn't want to put my finger on any one.  I actually think the biggest risk is that there will be periodic outbursts of protectionist sentiment.  You know, it may be softwood lumber one day or it may be beef another day and I think that the real risk is that you lose the ability to resolve these disputes in a relatively neutral and objective way.

Me:   Does our increasing imports to America's energy supply give us a bit more of an ace-in-the-hole than we might have had 16 years ago?

Emerson: Well, I think knowledgeable observers would have to take note of the fact that we are the largest supplier of energy to the United States and, you know, NAFTA has been kind of a foundation of integrating the North American energy market.  So, again, when people get below the rhetoric and start picking away at the details, you're going to find that it's not such a slam dunk proposition to go from the rhetoric to a meaningful improvement.

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