NAFTA talks make ‘real head­way’

Im­mi­nent with­drawal threats toned down

Lethbridge Herald - - FRONT PAGE - Alexander Panetta and Mike Blanchfield THE CANA­DIAN PRESS — MON­TREAL

The NAFTA rene­go­ti­a­tion has sur­vived a key round of talks, with the United States ex­press­ing some an­noy­ance but hail­ing mod­est progress, promis­ing fu­ture rounds, de­scrib­ing the trade pact as im­por­tant and ton­ing down the im­mi­nent with­drawal threats.

The week-long round con­cluded Mon­day with the U.S. trade czar shar­ing the wide­spread as­sess­ment of oth­ers that the lat­est talks marked the first con­crete ex­am­ples of con­struc­tive di­a­logue on hot-but­ton is­sues.

The talks are now sched­uled to con­tinue for at least two more months, with rounds sched­uled for Mex­ico City and Washington, be­fore pol­i­cy­mak­ers con­front a ma­jor dilemma: what to do dur­ing the spring, sum­mer and fall as Mex­ico and the U.S. hold na­tional elec­tions.

Robert Lighthizer ex­pressed myr­iad frus­tra­tions Mon­day. The U.S. trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive said he was un­sat­is­fied with Cana­dian pro­pos­als on au­tos, call­ing the progress too slow, dis­miss­ing another Cana­dian idea as a “poi­son pill” and be­moan­ing a Cana­dian com­plaint to the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, a tac­tic he char­ac­ter­ized as a “mas­sive at­tack” against the U.S. trad­ing sys­tem.

On bal­ance, how­ever, he sounded like a man will­ing to give NAFTA a chance.

“Some real head­way was made here,” Lighthizer said.

“The United States views NAFTA as a very im­por­tant agree­ment. We’re com­mit­ted to mov­ing for­ward. I am hope­ful progress will ac­cel­er­ate soon. We’ll work very hard be­tween now and the be­gin­ning of the next round — and we hope for ma­jor break­throughs in that pe­riod. We will en­gage both Mex­ico and Canada ur­gently, and we will go where these ne­go­ti­a­tions take us.”

With just eight weeks left in the cur­rent sched­ule of talks, un­fold­ing un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s per­sis­tent threats to blow up the deal, the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion has im­por­tant de­ci­sions to make about NAFTA’s fu­ture.

The Mon­treal round rep­re­sented a new phase for the ne­go­ti­a­tions. It in­cluded a first sig­nif­i­cant backand-forth di­a­logue on au­tos and other ma­jor stick­ing points. Sources say there were three hours of talks over two days about the au­tos pro­posal.

Lighthizer’s long-awaited ver­dict on the lat­est talks came at a pub­lic event along­side For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land and Ilde­fonso Gua­jardo of Mex­ico. The three held a se­ries of face-to-face bi­lat­eral meet­ings be­fore their fi­nal closed-door, three-way hud­dle.

It was the first such group ap­pear­ance since the trio’s mem­o­rably tense en­counter in the fall.

Nu­mer­ous par­tic­i­pants in the Mon­treal round were sound­ing cau­tiously op­ti­mistic in the lead-up to Mon­day’s clos­ing state­ments, call­ing the lat­est talks less neg­a­tive and more con­struc­tive than ini­tial ones, with the first true di­a­logue on se­ri­ous stick­ing points — au­tos, dis­pute res­o­lu­tion and a five-year re­view clause in par­tic­u­lar.

And there was the po­lit­i­cal dy­namic: Free­land and Lighthizer went to great lengths to dis­pel the no­tion that the two don’t ac­tu­ally like each other — an im­pres­sion cre­ated by frosty body lan­guage and rhetoric the last time the two shared the NAFTA stage last fall.

Lighthizer de­scribed his coun­ter­parts as friends. He also shared fond mem­o­ries of va­ca­tion­ing in the Mon­treal area with his fam­ily. Free­land was asked whether her re­la­tions with her U.S. coun­ter­part might de­rail the talks and of­fered a one-word re­ply: “No.”

“With­out be­ing overly op­ti­mistic, I am heart­ened by the progress,” Free­land said, cit­ing the clos­ing of an anti-cor­rup­tion chap­ter and other con­struc­tive con­ver­sa­tions.

The U.S. state­ment was be­ing closely parsed.

Lighthizer re­jected the new­est pro­pos­als as pre­sented, and even dis­par­aged some of them. He was es­pe­cially scathing in an aside ap­par­ently re­fer­ring to trade in ser­vices, where Canada sug­gested a pro­tec­tion­ist mea­sure in re­sponse to a pro­tec­tion­ist U.S. pro­posal.

“If the United States had made (this pro­posal),” he said, “(it) would be dubbed a ‘poi­son pill.’”

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