Editorial: Side Tracked

ENVIRONMENTALISTS, CONSUMER ADVOCATES and labor leaders have united in a coalition of rare breadth to oppose the proposed U.S.-Mexico -Canada free trade pact, arguing that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as it currently stands, will carry severe consequences for workers and the environment in all three signatory countries.

 Since the Clinton administration has refused to re-open the NAFTA negotiations to allow standards protections to be incorporated into the actual protocol, the agreement's critics are focusing their efforts on strengthening supplemental or "side" agreements to the pact as a means of protecting workers, consumers and the environment. This is a serious strategic error.

 The NAFTA critics have pegged the key problems with the trade pact, pointing out that it will:

Instead of fighting the trade agreement, however, many environmental and labor advocates are directing their efforts to putting some teeth into the side agreements.

In a May 5 letter to U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, a coalition of major U.S. environmental organizations detailed their demands for the environmental side agreement: the establishment of a North American Commission on the Environment (NACE); assurances that NACE decisions would be backed up by government dispute settlement procedures, possibly including trade sanctions; funding for border clean-up; and substantive public participation in debating environmental issues under NAFTA. The coalition, made up of Defenders of Wildlife, the World Wildlife Fund, the Audobon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, went so far as to pledge its support for NAFTA if its proposals are incorporated into the environmental side agreement.

 By pushing for stronger side agreements, NAFTA critics are setting the stage for ultimately accepting a fundamentally flawed trade strategy.

 First, it is not enough to include progressive labor and environmental standards either in the trade pact or in side agreements. Mexico already has tough standards, but they are widely ignored, and the Mexican government does not make any serious effort to enforce them.

 Second, it is essentially a foregone conclusion that the would-be enforcers of side agreements - trilateral environmental and labor commissions made up of government officials from all three countries - will hold little power. Although negotiators have not yet released working drafts of the supplemental agreements, the Mexican government has already made it clear that it opposes the creation of any commission that would challenge national sovereignty.

 Third, lobbying for side agreements is a serious tactical error. It sends a message to the Clinton administration and the U.S. Congress that NAFTA opponents accept the basic elements of a U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade deal, but that they want some changes made along the margin. That sets up NAFTA supporters to make some minor concessions to critics and thereby buy off their opposition.

 Fourth, and more broadly, there are inherent problems with the concept of free trade that cannot be cured - by side agreements or otherwise. Free trade inevitably exerts a sharp downward pressure on social standards by enabling companies to pit country against country in a race to set the lowest wage levels or the lowest environmental standards.

This is especially true for free trade between countries at vastly different levels of industrial development. There is simply no way, for example, to raise Mexican wages to the level of the United States in even the medium term - and that guarantees corporations will shift production to Mexico or demand that U.S. wage levels drop to the Mexican level.

 Additionally, the notion of promoting trade implies a global centralization of commerce that is environmentally and democratically unsound. No one denies the necessity of international trade and commerce. But societies need to focus their attention on fostering community-oriented production. Smaller-scale operations are more flexible and adaptable to environmentally sustainable production methods; production for local rather than distant markets saves significant amounts of energy spent on transportation; and locally rooted firms are more susceptible to democratic controls - they are less likely to threaten to migrate and they may perceive an overlap between their interests and those of the general community.

 NAFTA's critics should call for an outright rejection of the trade pact. If the coalition of citizen groups critical of NAFTA worked to tap into the deep public opposition to the agreement, it might be able to persuade the U.S. Congress to vote it down. In focusing attention on the side agreements, NAFTA critics are putting themselves on the sidelines for the critical debate over the trade deal.