The Free Trade Talks Threaten To Become A Free For All

Before three-way discussions on ending trade barriers from the Yukon to the Yucatan have even begun, concerns about U. S. job losses, pollution drifting across the border from Mexico, and politics in Ottawa, Washington, and Mexico City are threatening to derail the process. And that's imperiling President Bush's vision of a North American free-trade zone to rival the commercial might of Europe and Japan.

It wasn't supposed to be this difficult to get the parties to the table. Key Capitol Hill Democrats have already come out in support of Bush's plan. Polls show that 80% of Mexicans favor a free-trade pact with the U. S. What's more, U. S. and Canadian businesses alike have been pushing to speed up the 10-year reduction of tariffs contained in the 1988 U. S.-Canadian trade deal.

Yet the Bush Administration is suddenly scrambling to salvage its dream of triangular free trade. The problem: Congress is willing to put the coming negotiations on a fast track toward approval, but only if it has a say in shaping the agenda. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) and House Ways & Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), both backers of the talks, have given the White House until May 1 to develop an "action plan" to address the concerns of key constituencies. The AFL-CIO fears a wholesale flight of jobs to Mexico. And environmentalists warn that U. S. businesses will migrate south to take advantage of Mexico's lax pollution controls.

'GREEN' VOTES. House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a close labor ally, has laid out tough conditions for supporting the talks. He wants provisions on the environment, job safety, health regulations, and workers' rights.

Recognizing the problem, U. S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills has abandoned earlier plans for an agreement devoted purely to free-trade issues. In an effort to secure enough "green" Democratic votes, she has been asking environmental groups for suggestions.

Environmentalists are capitalizing on the opportunity. William K. Reilly, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, promises an agreement by this summer on a joint U. S.-Mexico plan to fight air and water pollution on the border. The trade negotiations offer "potentially the most significant

opportunity to improve the environment for 85 million Mexicans in my lifetime," says Reilly.

Bush isn't alone in offering concessions to domestic critics. Neither Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari nor Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is finding the going easy. Salinas is hoping to shore up Canadian support for the talks with a three-day trip to Canada beginning on Apr. 7, preceded by a meeting with Bush in Houston. But at home, he's being dogged by Mexican opponents who fear free trade means U. S. domination of their economy.

Salinas' foes hope to persuade critics in Washington and Ottawa to pile impossible demands on Salinas in hopes of killing the entire process. Leftists of the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party want the U. S. to require clean elections supervised by international observers in Mexico in 1994--a condition that Salinas and his ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) almost certainly wouldn't meet. Other foes are cannily playing to congressional fears by raising the specter of a wide-open border that invites drug smuggling and unlimited worker migration into the U. S. The climate for a three-way free-trade pact is even stormier in Canada. Mulroney's opponents are blaming the country's severe recession, which has sent unemployment soaring to 10.2%, on the U. S.-Canadian Free Trade Agreement. "If you would believe our critics, every person who lost a job in the past three years lost it because of the FTA. Every factory that closed in the past three years closed because of the FTA," complains International Trade Minister John C. Crosbie. Meanwhile, Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government is struggling with separatist fervor in Quebec that could split the confederation--and spike the talks.

STRINGS ATTACHED? Canadians also have less cataclysmic fears. Many of them suspect that the U. S. will try to renegotiate important portions of the current U. S.-Canadian agreement that Washington has never liked too much. Hills's pet peeve is Canada's long-standing protection of its "cultural industries" from the Visigoths of Hollywood and New York. "Canadians are very, very sensitive about the degree of domination of our media" by Americans, remarks Gordon Ritchie, Canada's deputy negotiator in the 1987 free-trade talks with the U. S. "We don't feel that writing novels is like making widgets."In the end, congressional opponents of a North American free-trade zone will probably lack the strength to kill the talks outright. But they'll make their presence felt. The Administration will get the negotiating authority it needs only with enough strings attached to weave a colorful serape.