By David Ljunggren and Stephen J. Adler
TORONTO (Reuters) – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday he was not overly worried about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), even though the main U.S. presidential candidates have said they want to change the deal.
Trudeau told a Reuters Newsmaker event in Toronto that while he realized people around the world were genuinely angry about missing out on the benefits of free trade, turning back the clock on globalization was not the answer.
Canada, a major oil exporter, is struggling to cope with a prolonged slump in crude prices that has slashed budget revenues and led to higher unemployment. The sluggish economy could be hit further by changes to NAFTA in the wake of the Nov. 8 presidential vote given the country sends 75 percent of its exports to the United States.
“I know that the rhetoric gets heated in election campaigns, but the fact is that NAFTA has been incredibly good for all three of our economies,” Trudeau said when asked whether he was concerned about the deal’s future.
“It just makes sense for us to be working together as an integrated and harmonized economy,” he added, saying he was “not overly worried” about the anti-NAFTA rhetoric and the accord’s future.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has variously vowed to tear up or renegotiate the 1994 deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Democrat Hillary Clinton has also called for changes.
Trudeau, who is nearing the end of his first year in office, has declined to say which candidate he favors, only that he would be happy to work with whomever wins.
Canadian diplomats have been fanning out across the United States to talk up the benefits of trade with state and local leaders in the run-up to the election.
“The challenge is that during an American presidential election you always hear protectionist rhetoric and you don’t know until after the election to what extent it will actually change into policy,” said Craig Alexander, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada think-tank.
In a bid to reduce its overwhelming reliance on the United States, Canada has negotiated a free trade deal with the European Union. Protests by anti-globalization groups have delayed the signing of the agreement.
“When faced with that anger you can either try and exploit it for short term political gain, or we can say, okay, this is a problem that we have to fix,” said Trudeau. “We just have to make sure that we’re making the right arguments for trade.”
The 44-year-old prime minister has enjoyed remarkably strong opinion poll numbers since winning power in last October’s election but now faces tough decisions that could lower his popularity.
A Nanos Research poll on Tuesday said 56 percent of people preferred Trudeau as prime minister compared with 14 percent for the leader of the opposition Conservatives.
Trudeau said his Liberal government was trying to disperse infrastructure investments to stimulate the economy as quickly as possible while being careful to ensure the funds were being spent responsibly.
The Liberals have promised C$60 billion ($45 billion) in new infrastructure spending, bringing the total to C$120 billion over 10 years.
Trudeau spoke after Thomson Reuters Chief Executive Officer Jim Smith announced the news and data provider would create a new technology center in Toronto, hiring 400 people over the next two years.
Smith and other senior executives will move to Toronto from the company’s office in Stamford, Connecticut.
Trudeau drew laughter from the audience by saying he had just raised Smith’s taxes. Earlier this year the government hiked the rate on top earners to help fund tax cuts for middle income earners.
Thomson Reuters is the parent of Reuters News.
(Additional reporting by Matt Scuffham, Allison Martell, Fergal Smith and Alastair Sharp; Editing by Alan Crosby)