UK's Brown Has Economic Message For U.S. Visit

When he visits Washington, British Prime Minister will urge lawmakers to abandon protectionism even though it could hurt American workers in the midst of a recession.

LONDON (AP) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown plans to deliver a tough economic message during his Washington visit this week -- urging U.S. lawmakers to abandon protectionism even though it could hurt American workers in the midst of a recession.

Brown jostled hard to be the first European leader to hold talks with President Barack Obama, but the key moment of his two-day visit starting Tuesday will come as he addresses Congress, telling them attempts to safeguard U.S. jobs will harm -- not help -- efforts to revive the global economy.

"This is a real tough sell, there is a latent job protectionism in America," said Michael Cox, a political analyst at the London School of Economics. "The question is whether senators and congressman are ready or willing to hear the message -- even if it is delivered in a British accent -- that globalization will be good for them in the long run."

The U.S. economy has lost about 3.6 million jobs since December 2007, and the auto industry has been particularly hard hit. Some lawmakers have called for extra government help for domestic car producers, aimed at saving U.S. jobs in the wake of slumping car sales and competition from Japanese manufacturers.

Major partners, including the European Union and Canada, also have criticized legislation that favors U.S. steel, iron and manufactured goods for government projects, saying it could undermine pledges by world leaders to keep goods moving freely.

How lawmakers respond to Brown's appeal to shun protectionism could define future relations between London and Washington -- and even determine whether the British leader will remain in office at home, lawmakers and analysts say.

Brown's popularity has been plummeting, and he badly needs to be linked to the charismatic new president. Supporters hope some of Obama's sparkle will rub off -- at least in photos of the two men inside the Oval Office.

After showing a sometimes frosty front with President George W. Bush, Brown hopes to prove ties to London are as crucial to the U.S. as developing relations with China and Japan.

But in tackling the protectionism issue, the British chief seeks to present himself as a plain speaking friend, not reluctant to question his trans-Atlantic ally like predecessor Tony Blair, who critics dubbed Bush's poodle.

Brown has praised Obama's pledge to honor international trade deals, part of the president's effort to water down "Buy American" provisions in early drafts of his $787 billion economic stimulus package. Obama insists that Washington won't violate trade pacts when implementing the law.

But former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said Brown's efforts to woo Congress -- not Obama -- are key to the success of his visit. He said Brown is well placed to persuade legislators that protectionism will be damaging.

"More than any other country in the world, the United Kingdom for more than 100 years has been the champion of free trade and we've practiced what we've preached," Rifkind told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. He said Britain led opposition in the 1930s to the protectionist response to the Great Depression, when the U.S. and other nations raised import duties to shore up fragile domestic industries.

But Rifkind said that unlike the charismatic Blair -- who made an emphatic and well-received address to Congress in 2003 -- Brown often struggles to make an impact with major speeches.

"If he presents it well, there is a reasonable prospect they will think that much harder and longer about being tempted by protectionist measures, which would damage America as well as the world," Rifkind said.

Brown has also paid a political price at home for insisting on the free movement of labor within the European Union. Strikers carrying placards demanding "British jobs for British workers" embarrassed Brown with a series of protests at an oil refinery in northern England.

Cox said the stakes for Brown are high domestically, too. He must call a national election by mid-2010, but trails in British opinion polls, lagging behind the rival Conservative Party by at least 10 percentage points in recent surveys.

Brown's fortunes look increasingly tied to success in steering the world economy quickly out of the downturn, and in using April's Group of 20 summit in London to cast himself as the architect of a global revival.

"He's going to focus like a laser beam on what he knows best, and that is the economy," Cox said. "This is his moment, this is his hour and he has got to deliver it on this stage if he's to recover his standing at home."

Associated Press Writer Laura Nichols contributed to this report.

More in Supply Chain