Tuesday, March 2, 2004

The United States and Morocco yesterday completed negotiations on a free trade agreement, a step toward President Bush’s goal of creating a single free trade zone in the Middle East.

“Our agreement with Morocco is not just a single announcement, but a vital step in creating a mosaic of U.S. free trade agreements across the Middle East and North Africa. Morocco will become part of an expanding network of U.S. free trade relationships,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick.

Yesterday’s announcement adds one more agreement to the list requiring congressional approval. Like Morocco, a Central American Free Trade Agreement, with five nations, and the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement have been negotiated but still require the president’s signature, then a yes-or-no vote by Congress.

“The challenge will be the time and the clock, but I think all these agreements ultimately will be passed. And we’d like to get as many as we could done this year,” Mr. Zoellick said.

The administration has to publish the Morocco agreement’s text and notify Congress 90 days before signing it, leaving final consideration no sooner than June. That would give lawmakers a relatively short window before their summer break and then the 2004 election.

Trade pacts with Chile and Singapore passed easily last year but the latest agreements are more controversial and trade has become an issue for elections.

The Central American pact has come under fire because of what critics call lax labor standards and because of some agriculture-related provisions. The Australia deal also has alienated some farm interests.

The U.S.-Moroccan pact is seen by some as more important politically than economically.

“This is not a major development in terms of trade,” said a Democratic source in the House, who asked not to be named.

The United States and Morocco started the negotiations in January 2003. The Bush administration said it selected Morocco in part to signal its support for tolerant Muslim countries and acknowledge political support after September 11.

The agreement with Morocco also is a component of the proposed Middle East Free Trade Agreement. Mr. Bush in May proposed the zone “to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity, to provide hope for the people who live in that region.”

The Morocco agreement is the United States’ second with an Arab-Muslim country and first in Africa. Jordan signed a deal in 2001 and America’s oldest free trade pact is also in the region, signed with Israel in 1985.

Morocco is economically more closely tied to Europe than America, and is a relatively small trade partner for the United States.

Last year the United States exported $465.1 million worth of products to Morocco, and imported $385.2 million. Total U.S. exports were $724 billion and imports nearly $1.26 trillion.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said that American commodities like wheat and feed grains, and products and services for energy, tourism and environmental industries would benefit under the free trade agreement as tariffs fall and the investment environment becomes more secure.

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