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New Englanders, Canadians Weigh Trade

THE North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) continues to be a difficult issue for both United States and Canadian politicians, primarily because of uncertainty over how its wide-reaching provisions could affect jobs.

Those doubts became evident at a meeting last week of the Conference of New England Governors and the Eastern Canadian Premiers, where the assembled leaders expressed varying degrees of support for the trade treaty.

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NAFTA, which would eliminate many trade barriers between Mexico, Canada, and the US over a 10-year period, was a leading topic at the group's 19th annual meeting, held Thursday and Friday.

Gov. William Weld (R) of Massachusetts, who chaired Friday's meeting, and Premier Robert Bourassa of Quebec both strongly endorsed NAFTA.

Mr. Weld, who has made numerous trips abroad to promote Massachusetts exports, said that the "internationalization of the economy is the most important economic fact in political life today." He said he sees good opportunities in NAFTA for the creation of "high-wage jobs" in his state through more exports.

Mr. Bourassa, leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, said, "I do not see how to avoid a fundamental mutation of economic life" through increasing trade. "This is not the 1960s or the 1970s," he continued, "when we faced unlimited prosperity - and could continue to increase deficits."

Gov. Howard Dean (D) of Vermont was less enthusiastic about NAFTA and said that the conference statement was crafted carefully to include varying views. Gov. Bruce Sundlun (D) of Rhode Island said there has been talk in his state of a large toy manufacturer possibly moving part of its operation to Mexico, thus cooling support for NAFTA.

Behind the uneven support for the trade deal was an obvious concern on the part of some of the elected officials about possible loss of jobs from increased competition, as well as uncertainty about the ultimate direction of the now open and revitalized Mexican economy - a market of 85 million people.

Mexico sees NAFTA as just one more element in a long succession of reforms, said Hermann von Bertrab, director of Mexico's NAFTA office in Washington.

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NAFTA, now under active review in the national legislatures in each country, will go into effect Jan. 1, if approved by all three countries. It seems much more certain to pass in Mexico and Canada than in the US, although its supporters in the US maintain that it will eventually be approved by Congress, however narrowly.

Even though labor unions and other groups continue to oppose the trade treaty, the governors and premiers did not hear from any opponents of NAFTA. Instead, the group was carefully briefed by experts on the merits of NAFTA in a way that answered - or attempted to answer - most of the criticism against it.

One spokesman for NAFTA said that US companies have moved to Mexico to gain access to its market, not primarily for lower wages, and that when tariffs fall, through NAFTA, such moves will be much less attractive than in the past.

The Governors and Premiers Conference has worked for 20 years to remove barriers to economic cooperation in the Eastern Canada-New England region. The group did not meet in 1991, because of the fiscal crises in the New England states then, nor in 1992, because of the constitutional crisis in Canada.

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