NAFTA ne­go­ti­a­tions as early as May

Trump sig­nals hope of quick start


North Amer­ica could be im­mersed in ma­jor trade ne­go­ti­a­tions as early as this spring, with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sig­nalling a de­sire Thurs­day to get go­ing quickly on up­dat­ing the land­mark NAFTA agree­ment.

The pres­i­dent noted that Amer­i­can law re­quires him to pro­vide 90 days’ no­tice to Congress be­fore start­ing any trade ne­go­ti­a­tion, while the ad­min­is­tra­tion gath­ers ad­vice from law­mak­ers and pri­vate in­dus­try on what bar­gain­ing po­si­tions to adopt.

“(We) will be very soon, as soon as we get the go-ahead,’’ Trump said.

“We want to get that whole thing kick­started and go­ing.’’

That means trade talks could start as early as May, de­pend­ing on when Trump fires the starter’s pis­tol. Mex­ico’s govern­ment pre­dicted this week ne­go­ti­a­tions would be­gin in May, as it an­nounced its own 90-day con­sul­ta­tion process.

One loom­ing ques­tion is what form a fi­nal agree­ment might take — and whether the fun­da­men­tal doc­u­ment now bind­ing the three North Amer­i­can coun­tries might get a mi­nor up­date, a ma­jor one, or splin­ter en­tirely into oneon-one deals be­tween coun­tries.

Trump sounded open to ei­ther of those ap­proaches.

He sug­gested the agree­ment could get a facelift — or an en­tirely new body: “I don’t care if it’s a ren­o­va­tion of NAFTA or a brand new NAFTA,’’ Trump said. “But we do have to make it fair.’’

He added, in jest: “Maybe we do a new NAFTA and we add an ex­tra ‘F’ ... for ‘free and fair’ trade.’’

Some trade ex­perts pre­dict the tri­lat­eral agree­ment of 1993 could wind up break­ing into sep­a­rate bi­lat­eral deals be­tween the coun­tries, an idea pub­licly floated last week by one of Trump’s clos­est al­lies in Congress, law­maker Chris Collins.

The Cana­dian govern­ment sounds will­ing to go ei­ther route. Cana­dian of­fi­cials have sig­nalled pub­licly, and pri­vately, that while they pre­fer the three-coun­try for­mat as it is, they could live with mul­ti­ple agree­ments as a Plan B.

That’s ex­actly what one lead­ing au­thor­ity on NAFTA pre­dicts will hap­pen.

The cur­rent po­lit­i­cal trend­lines point to­ward sep­a­rate bi­lat­eral agree­ments, said Gary Huf­bauer, the for­mer U.S. trade of­fi­cial and NAFTA ex­pert who’s now an an­a­lyst with Wash­ing­ton’s Peter­son In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional Eco­nomics.

Not that he agrees with it. Huf­bauer said bi­lat­eral deals would be more com­pli­cated, more time-con­sum­ing, would suck up ad­di­tional en­ergy from law­mak­ers, ne­go­tia­tors, and in­dus­try lob­by­ists, and cause con­cern about dis­rup­tions in sup­ply chains.

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