United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced Wednesday that the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin with a first round of talks Aug.16-20 in Washington.
Aug.16 is the earliest day the Trump administration can come to the table with Canada and Mexico to present opening offers. A 90-day consultation period was required first, according to U.S. legislation. That process started in May.
Additional negotiating rounds are expected to follow in the other two countries throughout the fall.
Congress is currently giving its feedback to negotiating objectives published by Lighthizer’s office Monday, as also required by law.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s spokesman Adam Austen wrote Wednesday that Canada looks forward to “modernizing NAFTA into a progressive trade agreement,” and the government continues to invite Canadians to share their ideas and priorities.
Some senior voices in the Trump administration have expressed a desire to act quickly. By the summer of 2018, Mexico’s in a presidential election campaign, and later that fall, the U.S. has midterm elections for Congress. There’s a fear that talks could bog down or stall if electoral politics take over.
Lighthizer told the the U.S. Senate’s finance committee last month that “we’re going to have a very short time frame, and we’re going to compact it as much as we possibly can.”
But “there is no deadline,” he said. “My hope is that we get it done by the end of the year, but there are a lot of people who think that’s completely unrealistic.”
What’s on the table?
How long negotiations take may depend on how much of the deal the U.S. wants to rewrite. Negotiators won’t know exactly what’s on the agenda until their opening positions are exchanged next month.
“The other NAFTA parties — Canada and Mexico … their position has been: the U.S. wanted to re-open this and modernize it. We’re just coming along,” international trade lawyer Dan Ujczo told CBC News last week. “So I think in some ways the U.S. is going to set the agenda.”
Monday’s release of the U.S. negotiating objectives featured few surprises. The majority of the items in the 18-page summary published for Congress were consistent with priorities in the 2015 trade promotion authority legislation that gives the USTR its Congressional authority to negotiate trade deals.
Several sections line up with what the U.S. negotiated with Canada and Mexico in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, a 12-country Pacific Rim trade pact that U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order to pull out of shortly after taking office last fall.
But a few items — particularly an American desire to eliminate the NAFTA chapter that allows countries to appeal countervailing and anti-dumping duties, such as the American levies recently placed on Canadian softwood lumber — will lead to tough bargaining.
Canada’s official consultation process seeking feedback on NAFTA ended Tuesday, but an online portal to collect Canadians’ views remains open.
While the U.S. consultations required by Congress have been largely public, Canada’s preparations have been criticized for being too private.
Opposition MPs sent a letter Tuesday requesting an emergency meeting of the Commons international trade committee this summer to discuss Canada’s negotiating objectives in advance, with Freeland, International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Finance Minister Bill Morneau as witnesses.
“We have yet to see meaningful, transparent and open discourse with the Canadian public on this government’s trading priorities and objectives regarding NAFTA,” Ken Neumann from the United Steelworkers union said in a release.
“We call on the government to clearly detail the specific components, principles and provisions which make up what it has called its ‘progressive trade agenda,'” he said.
The steelworkers, who did not support the TPP and want controversial investor-state dispute settlement provisions (NAFTA’s Chapter 11) removed from NAFTA, are one of several groups publicizing their submissions to Canada’s consultation process.
Another submission shared with CBC News from the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters called for things like updated customs procedures, updates to the list of professionals permitted to move freely between NAFTA countries and an elimination of sub-national government procurement restrictions.
The U.S. objectives published Monday said American state and local governments should be able to restrict Canadian or Mexican companies from bidding on their contracts — another example of where the talks appear set for tough bargaining.
Chief negotiator announced
John Melle will be the Trump administration’s chief negotiator. He is currently the assistant trade representative responsible for U.S. trade policy in the Western hemisphere.
Steve Verheul, the chief negotiator for Canada’s recent trade deal with the European Union, will lead Canada’s negotiating team.
Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s senior official on the softwood lumber file as well as the lead negotiator for the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that included the United States and Mexico, is relocating to Washington to become Ambassador David MacNaughton’s deputy at the Canadian Embassy in D.C. She also is expected to play a leadership role.