No need to renegotiate NAFTA to improve it: USTR

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It is not necessary to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to honor President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to add stronger labor and environmental provisions, the top U.S. trade official said on Monday.

“The president has said we will look at all options, but I think they can be addressed without having to reopen the agreement,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters in a conference call on trade issues discussed at the Summit of Americas meeting this past weekend in Trinidad.

Kirk’s statement was the latest indication that Obama would not press for a full-fledged renegotiation of the 15-year-old North American trade accord, despite complaints he made about the pact in last year’s campaign.

At the height of his primary-season contest against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Obama said the United States should use the “hammer” of threatening to withdraw from NAFTA if Canada and Mexico did not agree to change the pact.

Obama stopped in Mexico City for meetings with President Felipe Calderon on his way to the Trinidad meeting. It was his second meeting with Calderon and followed a February trip to Ottawa to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

All three leaders were “of the mind that we should be looking for opportunities to strengthen NAFTA, and at an appropriate time I will be meeting with our colleagues to try to put a little more form to that,” Kirk said.

Although most mainstream U.S. business and farm groups credit NAFTA with boosting U.S. exports and increasing economic efficiency in North America, union groups in many manufacturing states blame the pact for heavy job losses.

Obama promised last year to add “enforceable” labor and environmental provisions to the core of the text agreement and change investment provisions that critics say give business too much leeway to flout government regulations.

Kirk did not completely shut the door to a formal renegotiation, but said the three countries should be able to find ways “to strengthen the agreement” without opening up the whole pact.

Experts have said it should be possible to add enforceable labor and environmental provisions to the core text, partly because those issues are already covered in side agreements.

Meanwhile, Kirk said he expected U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to soon give Obama his recommendations for resolving a NAFTA dispute with Mexico over trucking.

Mexico imposed retaliatory duties on $2.4 billion worth of U.S. manufacturing and agricultural goods after Congress canceled a pilot program to let Mexican long-haul trucks operate in the United States.

“This is an issue of great concern for us,” Kirk said, adding that Obama had asked his entire economic team to work under Lahood’s leadership to resolve the spat.

Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Patricia Zengerle