Trump to re­veal his hopes for NAFTA


Af­ter cam­paign­ing and com­plain­ing about NAFTA for two years, Don­ald Trump is about to start do­ing some ex­plain­ing: the U.S. pres­i­dent is poised to re­lease a list as early as Mon­day re­veal­ing how he wants to change the deal.

Amer­i­can law re­quires that the ad­min­is­tra­tion pub­lish a list of its ob­jec­tives en­ter­ing trade ne­go­ti­a­tions. The rea­son this could hap­pen any day is be­cause the ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes to start ne­go­ti­a­tions around Aug. 16 and the law re­quires this list be posted on­line 30 days in ad­vance.

Ex­pect the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to say lit­tle in re­sponse to the list.

“I can’t imag­ine that we would start ne­go­ti­at­ing be­fore the ne­go­ti­a­tions ac­tu­ally start,” Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau said Fri­day. “We’re go­ing to be re­spon­si­ble about this, to be thought­ful and re­spon­si­ble in how we en­gage the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

That tight-lipped ap­proach stems from the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s over­all strat­egy: Make the Amer­i­cans lay out their cards first, given that they asked for th­ese ne­go­ti­a­tions and in the

par­lance of trade talks are the “de­man­deur.”

The U.S. has sig­nalled wildly con­flict­ing ap­proaches.

Trump keeps threat­en­ing to rip up the trade agree­ment in the ab­sence of a ma­jor rene­go­ti­a­tion. His vice-pres­i­dent just de­liv­ered a speech ex­ud­ing col­le­gial­ity and promis­ing a new NAFTA that would be a “win-win-win.”

The sig­nals to Congress have been equally con­tra­dic­tory.

In a leaked draft of a let­ter to law­mak­ers, the ad­min­is­tra­tion showed a de­sire to play hard­ball and seek changes that would be deemed non­starters by the other coun­tries. It later re­leased a bare-bones, mod­est ver­sion of that let­ter.

It was with this let­ter that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for­mally de­clared its in­ten­tion to en­ter trade ne­go­ti­a­tions with Canada and Mex­ico. Those mixed mes­sages are due in part to philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ences within Trump’s team about how ag­gres­sive to get on trade.

A vet­eran of U.S. trade ne­go­ti­a­tions sug­gests this up­com­ing no­tice will fall some­where be­tween the two ver­sions of those let­ters to law­mak­ers: more de­tailed than the fi­nal ver­sion, less ex­pan­sive than the draft.

“It will be more spe­cific, but I think still broad-brush bul­let points on what they want to ac­com­plish,” said Welles Orr, a se­nior U.S. trade of­fi­cial un­der Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton.

“So no sur­prises. I don’t ex­pect we’re go­ing to see any­thing that pops out as ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t see this com­ing.’ So I think it’ll be kind of per­func­tory.”

Here’s what he ex­pects in the new NAFTA: mod­ern chap­ters on dig­i­tal com­merce, mod­elled on those in the now-dor­mant Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship; changes to auto parts im­port rules that all three coun­tries can live with; and a bruis­ing fight over dairy.

He pre­dicts the dairy is­sue will come down to the fi­nal wire. “That’s the hot­bed is­sue that’s hang­ing out there that will be the last is­sue to get re­solved. But if that’s re­solved, I don’t see a whole lot of con­tention on the Cana­dian side.”

The rea­son the ad­min­is­tra­tion has to pub­lish this list, and re­lease let­ters to Congress, is be­cause of a deal be­tween the leg­isla­tive and ex­ec­u­tive branches of the U.S. gov­ern­ment, en­shrined in what’s known as a fast-track law.

Un­der the terms of that deal, U.S. law­mak­ers re­lin­quish their power to amend an in­ter­na­tional agree­ment, as is their right un­der the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion; in ex­change, law­mak­ers are con­sulted through­out the ne­go­ti­at­ing process.

That process in­cludes pub­lic hear­ings — on Tues­day, for in­stance, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives com­mit­tee in charge of trade will hold a hear­ing on NAFTA, how it’s worked, and how it could be mod­ern­ized.

It was Orr’s job to act as a li­ai­son to Congress as the deputy as­sis­tant U.S. trade czar.

He be­lieves the ad­min­is­tra­tion will de­liver more spe­cific march­ing or­ders to the ne­go­ti­at­ing team in the up­com­ing pub­lic no­tice, in­clud­ing a de­sire to work quickly. That de­sire for a fast ne­go­ti­a­tion could be hin­dered by the fact that the U.S. trade czar’s of­fice still has nu­mer­ous po­si­tions un­filled.

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