With Quebec’s picture-postcard Laurentian Mountains as a backdrop, negotiating teams from Canada and the United States began their third round of free trade discussions last week in an environment deliberately chosen for its air of tranquillity. During the three days of talks in the resort town of Mont Tremblant, about 150 km north of Montreal, members of both sides dressed informally in slacks and open-neck shirts. The negotiators even played a friendly game of softball. But despite the casual setting, the talks once again appeared threatened by the actions of a U.S. Congress concerned about the country’s yawning trade deficit.
The latest irritant was a proposal sponsored by Kansas Republican Robert Dole, the U.S. Senate majority leader, to boost American grain exports over the next five years by subsidizing wheat sales to the Soviet Union and China. The Dole plan, aimed at helping the troubled American grain industry, would permit grain sales to those countries at prices as much as 30 per cent less than the cost of production-undercutting competing sales by Canada, Australia and Argentina. Last week Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent a personal letter to President Ronald Reagan urging him to oppose a measure that would cause “serious difficulties for farmers in Canada.” But at
week’s end the White House, under pressure from farm state congressmen facing re-election this fall, announced that Reagan had authorized subsidized grain sales to the Soviet Union. In Mont Tremblant chief U.S. negotiator Peter Murphy acknowledged that he had discussed the grain sales subject with his Canadian counterpart, Simon Reisman, but both sides played down its impact on the talks.
The controversy arose at a time when pressure is increasing on Reisman to reach an early agreement. Privately, Mulroney aides have told associates that they are angry at Reisman’s overbearing manner and his insistence on running the talks in his own way. Said one senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office: “He is trying to play Henry Kissinger and acting as though he knows more than the leader. If he wants to act the part, he also has to deliver.” For his part, Reisman criticized “the nervous Nellies and the naysayers,” adding, “there’s nothing that has happened to give them any comfort whatsoever.” Reisman predicted that the first exploratory phase would conclude in two months. The detailed bargaining is expected to take an additional year. Said a jocular Reisman: “We are the heroes who are going to bring you an historic agreement.” Faced with volatile opposition from both Canadian and American fronts, that will be an increasingly difficult role to play.
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