Canada open to completing NAFTA talks in short order

CBC News

Canadian negotiators are open to working on a timeline proposed by the U.S. to complete NAFTA renegotiations before the end of the year, CBC News has learned.

A government source, speaking on background, tells CBC News that Canada is willing to work quickly, but will not agree to a bad deal for the sake of meeting a deadline.

About 75 Canadians are part of a delegation in Washington this week for the opening round of NAFTA renegotiations. The initial talks wrap up Sunday, with a second session of discussions planned for next month in Mexico City.  

American officials have indicated they want talks to move fast, and are hopeful a new deal can be reached well before midterm elections in 2018.

Mexico also has an interest in completing talks quickly, as it faces a federal election next year.

But this timeline may be too ambitious, one trade expert warns.

“Completing the NAFTA talks before Christmas is an improbable goal,” said Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Centre, noting the recent U.S.-Mexico sugar agreement took two years to negotiate.

In her newly released trade newsletter, Dawson argues “all three countries have brought robust lists of objectives to the table and the issues are highly technical.”

“Moreover, with just a few days scheduled between rounds, it will be very difficult for negotiators to consult with stakeholders and adjust their mandates, if required.”

Trade talks typically slow

Historically, complex modern trade agreements move slowly. The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) both took years to complete.

While this reboot of NAFTA is not starting from scratch, the Trump administration has called for significant changes.

“We cannot ignore the huge trade deficits, the lost manufacturing jobs, the businesses that have closed or moved because of incentives — intended or not — in the current agreement,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in his opening statement on Wednesday.

The U.S. is making the boldest demands, calling for improved labour standards, better access to agricultural markets and changes to trade dispute resolution rules.

Both Canada and Mexico have said they are open to an update, but their demands have been considerably more moderate.

Meetings are taking place at an upscale hotel, just beyond the fringes of downtown Washington. So far, the source said, discussions have been “cordial,” as had been expected.

Negotiators from all three countries are meeting in small groups divided by topic. Officials present the changes each country is seeking and highlight areas of agreement.

Where there is clear conflict, those subjects are noted and put on hold to be dealt with at a later time.

Trump silent on talks, so far

U.S. President Donald Trump is the sole reason these talks are taking place.

During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to tear up the deal in the hopes of bringing manufacturing jobs back to middle America. After winning the presidency, he repeatedly criticized NAFTA on Twitter and in person.

But since discussions began on Wednesday, Trump has not mentioned the deal or talks.

Political observers had suggested Trump may try to use the trade discussions as a distraction from the controversies engulfing the White House.

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