NAFTA trade talks seem to be bogged down

With talks in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement going nowhere, U.S. envoy to Canada, Bruce Heyman, told Global News maybe it’s time to call the agreement something else.

“The term NAFTA is a toxic term, and I would leave that term and put it aside and not talk about it,” Heyman said.

“I think that unfortunately it’s become a political punching bag of sorts.”

But is the name really the problem? The deal has been going downhill ever since Donald Trump was elected U.S. President.

Trump has called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever.”

A Global News story paints even a glimmer picture.

“The sheer ignorance of U.S. President Donald Trump when it comes to how free trade works between Canada, the United States and Mexico means Canadians have good cause to be worried about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” the story begins.

The story goes on to say that David Frum, speechwriter for former president George W. Bush and author of the newly-released book Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, told The West Block‘s Vassy Kapelos in an interview that when it comes to negotiations around NAFTA and fears over whether Trump will pull the plug on the 25-year-old agreement, Canadians are right to be worried.

“Canadians should be worried a lot about NAFTA because Donald Trump, he doesn’t understand what it does; he doesn’t understand why it’s important; he doesn’t understand why it’s important to American industries,” said Frum, who is now the senior editor of The Atlantic magazine. “He lives by domination and he lives to destroy.”

Negotiators from all three countries were in Montreal last week for the sixth round of discussions aimed at renegotiating the agreement.

U.S. negotiator at the talks, Robert Lighthizer, has a differing view from Heyman. He believes the deal still has a chance no matter what they call it.

“This round was a step forward, but we are progressing very slowly,” he said.

Lighthizer said trilateral negotiations are more “complicated and contentious” than bilateral talks.

In his closing remarks, Lighthizer also took the opportunity to rip into a trade challenge launched by Canada against the U.S., calling the World Trade Organization filing against Washington’s use of anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties “unprecedented” and a “massive attack on all of our trade laws.”

Just hearing that has to raise some alarm bells. Canadian negotiators have to know they are in for some pretty tough sledding if they hope to get a deal.

Canada’s chief negotiator Chrystia Freeland said Canada agrees with recent statements made by Trump that free trade must be fair and reciprocal.

“Canadians do not view free trade as a zero sum game in which one side must lose in order for the other to win,” she said in a CBC story.

But can there even be a deal? The two sides can’t even agree on the numbers.

During the joint news conference, Lighthizer said Canada has an $87 billion surplus with the U.S; $46 billion when energy is removed. But Freeland came armed with her own numbers to rebut his claim, citing figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce, which she said found Canada had an $8 billion deficit in overall trade with the U.S.

While there was tough talk from Canada and the U.S., the tone was somewhat more positive than after the last round, when Freeland openly accused the U.S. of deliberately trying to undermine NAFTA, calling its list of unconventional proposals “troubling.”

The CBC story goes on to say Freeland also warned that an updated NAFTA can’t be achieved with a “winner-takes-all mindset,” or one that tries to undermine, rather than modernize, the agreement.

Last Monday, she said she was not taken aback by Lighthizer’s language, saying trade negotiations are always a “dramatic” process with accusations made and “high rhetoric.”

“That’s how these things work,” she said.

But are things really working?

Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal said while progress was achieved, “substantial challenges” remain to overcome contentious issues.

The sixth round closed with all three countries looking forward to more progress on the next round of talks, which will be held in Mexico City in late February. But whether they call it NAFTA or come up with something else, it should be clear, there’s still plenty of work to be done if there’s going to be a new deal.

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Shannon Shaub

About the Author: Shannon Shaub

Shannon is a journalist based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.
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