Alphabet soup of acronyms for trading blocs creates a state of soggy confusion

WHITE House officials have issued dour warnings in recent days that too much Congressional partisanship could result in ``the death of GATT.''

To people bored by free-trade acronyms, this might be good news. But to trade policy experts, the demise of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would mean the failure of seven years of negotiations aimed at giving the world a reliable set of rules for international commerce.

GATT is designed to combat protectionism - countries inhibiting free trade for the sake of domestic interests, such as the votes of workers worried that cheaper imports will put them out of a job.

All the talk about GATT aside, the trend in recent years in world trade is the creation of regional trading blocs. Without GATT, the experts worry, these blocs could turn inward, creating a tide of protectionism that would damage the world economy. Protectionism is blamed in part for the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Keeping track of the world's free-trade agreements is getting harder to do. The most important follow.

Sweden decided on Nov. 13 to become the latest nation to join the European Union, which links nations on that continent in a single market.

The EU is the most intimate of the world's trade pacts, creating a customs union, open borders, the possibility of a single currency - and fears of European protectionism.

EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, is a waning organization created by Austria, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Sweden as an alternative to the EU. EFTA still has agreements in place with the Czech Republic, Israel, and Romania.

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is designed to make widgets and currency flow more easily between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Some Latin American countries are clamoring for inclusion.

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Nov. 15 resulted in a plan to achieve free trade in that region by 2020. APEC links the world's most dynamic and powerful economies, but its leaders promise to eliminate trade barriers to all trading partners, not just APEC members.

Not to be overlooked is the nascent AFTA, a Free Trade Area created in 1992 by ASEAN, the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay enjoy free trade under the auspices of MERCOSUR, a Spanish acronym that sounds like the name of a luxury car.

An agreement known as the Lome Convention, after the capital of Togo, establishes some preferential trade arrangements between European countries and their former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific.

SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

As if all of these groupings weren't enough, there are movements afoot to fashion economic cooperation agreements among the nations on the Indian Ocean. As well as among all the countries in the Western Hemisphere. Countries of the North African region known as the Maghreb are considering a trade agreement with the EU.

Officials are presumably researching possible acronyms, the first step on the road to free trade.

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