Veroneau Signals U.S. Willingness To Renegotiate Labor In Peru, Colombia FTAs

Inside US Trade
January 17, 2007

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative John Veroneau today (Jan. 17) signaled the U.S. is willing to renegotiate the labor chapters of free-trade agreements with Peru, Colombia and Panama in order to get them approved by the Congress now controlled by Democrats.

He said USTR has already informed all three countries that it expects they will have to make “substantive changes to those texts” before the agreements are taken up by Congress.

According to Veroneau, the administration has already had informal discussions with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and other Democrats about possible changes to the labor chapters, but he declined to offer details. He said more talks with Democrats would take place over the next few weeks, but refused to describe where the administration and Democrats are on the substance of the issue.

“It is clear that some adjustments to that chapter will be made before Congress takes those up,” Veroneau told reporters at a press conference. He said the current fast-track authority includes a “template” for labor and environment provisions in FTAs, but said that template will have to be changed for the FTAs with Peru, Colombia and Panama.

“We now need to find a new template for those agreements, and I’m confident we’ll be able to do so, assuming that folks are interested in finding a new template that promotes trade,” Veroneau said.

He said the administration hopes to get congressional approval of the three FTAs before the current fast-track authority expires at the end of June, although he also noted that the agreements could be considered later. Under the fast-track law, an FTA can be considered by Congress on an up or down vote if it is signed before the June expiration.

Labor chapters in the three FTAs require signatories to enforce their own labor laws, which Democrats have criticized for not meeting the standards of the International Labor Organization.

Veroneau said Peru, Colombia and Panama share the same goal as the U.S. of winning bipartisan support in Congress for the three trade agreements, and that they “recognize that we need to make some accommodations to achieve that goal.” At the same time, he indicated that there is always a worry that stronger labor provisions could be used to “frustrate trade as opposed to expanding trade.”

Veroneau did not rule out the possibility that the U.S. would have to make additional concessions in order to get Peru, Colombia and Panama to change the labor chapters.

Veroneau spoke to reporters before his trip to Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, where he said he would be discussing the Doha round and bilateral issues. On Doha, Veroneau said there is a new sense of optimism that a breakthrough in the Doha talks is possible, although he said a tremendous amount of work remains to be done, and added there are still serious substantive gaps between the U.S. and key trading partners.

What has changed, he said, is that members now feel a sense of urgency to complete the talks because of the possibility that not doing so will put off a Doha agreement until at least 2009 or 2010, after the U.S. presidential election next year.

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