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Published: Friday, 5/16/2003

NAFTA is labeled a `big success' by Canada ex-leader

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

The North American Free Trade Agreement has its enemies, but as far as one of its architects is concerned, “it's been a big success” that needs to be expanded to include countries in Central and South America.

That message was delivered yesterday in a speech by Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada and now chairman of the board of Quebecor World Inc. and of Forbes Global New York.

“U.S. and Canadian trade has exploded,” said Mr. Mulroney, who held Canada's highest post for nearly nine years in the 1980s and 1990s. He spoke yesterday at the Valentine Theatre as the keynote speaker at the sixth annual meeting of the Regional Growth Partnership and the Regional Technology Alliance.

His message, delivered amid funny anecdotes and peppered with snippets from famous speeches, was a simple one: it is imperative that the United States and its allies stay strong economically, if they hope to combat the kind of terrorism that was unleashed on Sept. 11, 2001 in this country.

Before that late summer day, Mr. Mulroney said he thought the two biggest challenges in the next decade would be international security concerns, mostly coming from China, and how the Internet revolution was going to be the biggest equalizing opportunity in international trade ever.

All of that changed, he said, after commercial airliners were flown into the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

“That changed the world, it changed our world. In the 18 months since that tragedy, our leaders have urged us to get on with our lives,” he said. “So, what can we do most usefully?”

In Mr. Mulroney's view, the answer is to pass the last of “the trade trilogy” that would keep the United States in “the vanguard of industrial nations, so justice and freedom can flourish.”

The first two parts, the former prime minister said, were the U.S./Canada Free Trade Act passed in the late 1980s and the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law in 1992 by Mr. Mulroney, then-U.S. President George Bush, and Mexico's then-president, Carlos Salinas de Gotari.

“And now, we need to work on the Free Trade Area of the Americas,” he said. Such an agreement would open trade with 34 countries in the southern hemisphere that have 800 million citizens and the potential for $13 trillion in trade, which represents “a tremendous opportunity” for North American companies, he said.

“Here in Toledo, much of your future is due south,” Mr. Mulroney said.

The move toward such an agreement, he said, has hit some snags, most notably the war in Iraq, but he is hopeful that strong support from the current President Bush will mean passage by 2005.

The former Canadian political leader told the audience, “It's not be accident that your governor is in Mexico this week. That country has surpassed Japan as America's No. 2 trading partner, and it's one-twelfth the size of Japan.”

The benefits of freer trade with South and Central American countries would be staggering, if the current trading record between the United States and Canada is any indication, said Mr. Mulroney.

Canada is the No. 1 trading partner with 37 states, and 87 percent of Canada's expert go to the United States, he said.

“We import three times as many American products as China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan combined,” he said.

Also at the meeting, Don Jakeway, president and chief executive of the Regional Growth Partnership, announced the winners of this year's Partners in Progress Awards, which were established to honor institutions that have “helped our region shine bright.”

The Partner of the Year award was given to Dana Corp., Toledo's Fortune 500 giant that is consolidating some of its technology and research work in a center under construction in southwest Lucas County. Also mentioned for awards were General Motors Toledo Powertrain Plant; the city of Napoleon and Henry County, Henry County Bank, Northwest Ohio Black Chamber of Commerce, Owens-Illinois Inc., SSOE Inc., Thread Inc., and WGTE Public Broadcasting.



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