NEW ORLEANS - Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a strong endorsement of North American free trade Tuesday but expressed concerns about congestion at the border.

Speaking at the end of a two-day summit with the U.S. and Mexican presidents, Harper said expanding trade is the key to greater prosperity for the three North American countries.

"It's clear that greater North American co-operation is our best option to create jobs and to compete effectively with emerging trading blocs elsewhere in the world," Harper said.

"To that end, I specifically raised concerns about the so-called thickening of the Canada-U.S. border."

Congestion and more extensive security screening at border crossings have resulted in logjams that impede the easy movement of people and goods between the two countries. Harper said it's an issue that has been of particular concern to the business community for several years now.

Harper also pointed out Canada provides the United States with a stable and secure supply of energy, at a time when international uncertainties have sent oil prices soaring.

The prime minister made the remarks while appearing for a news conference with U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Bush also spoke in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Responding to criticism of the trade deal from Democratic presidential candidates, Bush said: "Now is not the time to renegotiate NAFTA or walk away from NAFTA."

Rather, he says, it's time to make the trade deal work better and to reduce trade barriers worldwide.

The four-year-old Security and Prosperity Partnership among the three countries was designed to cut red tape and increase efficiencies within NAFTA, but U.S. presidential politics and the American economic downturn have conspired to make NAFTA a whipping post.

The Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have both threatened to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA as a means to pressure Canada and Mexico to negotiate more protections for workers and the environment.

The three countries share the largest trading partnership in the world, totalling nearly US$1 trillion a year.

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