(The Canadian Press)

Canada’s NAFTA waiting game enters new week as US and Mexico work on differences

The federal government insists it hasn’t been frozen out of the talks

The hurry-up-and-wait uncertainty surrounding Canada’s return to the NAFTA talks is entering a new week as Ottawa’s partners in the trilateral deal push forward with their one-on-one negotiations.

For five weeks, top officials from both the United States and Mexico have logged many hours of face-to-face talks in Washington on the North American Free Trade Agreement. With signs of progress apparent, the high-level American-Mexican meetings stretched through the weekend.

But even with brightening prospects, Ottawa has remained absent from summertime discussions on a continental pact that’s deeply important for the Canadian economy. A timeline for Canada’s return to the table has yet to be mapped out.

The federal government insists it hasn’t been frozen out of the talks, and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she’s been in regular contact with both her counterparts, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

Canadian officials have argued the bilateral period has been necessary for the U.S. and Mexico to sort out tough issues such as rules of origin for autos.

But trade experts say Canada’s omission is — at least in part — a tactic by the White House to divide and conquer as it applies extra pressure on Ottawa to accept what could be a less-palatable deal.

Peter Clark, a veteran Ottawa-based trade lawyer, said the U.S. is letting Canada cool its heels in what he calls a unique approach to negotiations.

“It’s not unusual to have bilateral sessions, but not to this extent,” said Clark, who considers a Lighthizer a good tactician.

“It’s an Ambassador Bob special.”

READ MORE: Trump suggests Canada has been sidelined from latest NAFTA negotiations

READ MORE: Canada ‘very encouraged’ by progress on US-Mexican NAFTA talks

READ MORE: NAFTA progress doesn’t stop Freeland from heading to Europe on diplomatic trip

Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington, agrees that keeping Canada away from the table in recent weeks is part of the U.S. strategy.

“Crude and rude to be sure. But not necessarily damaging,” Burney wrote in a brief email, adding that Canadian officials “will have to wait and see, while holding our ground without flinching.”

Ohio-based trade lawyer Dan Ujczo said the bilateral U.S.-Mexico talks are necessary because the two countries’ one-on-one issues are more significant at this point in the year-long negotiations — but he added that leaving Canada on the sidelines has an added effect.

“I think it was just a negotiating reality, but there’s no question in my mind that it was designed to impose maximum leverage — as any negotiator would,” said Ujczo, who works for the law firm Dickinson Wright.

For several weeks, Canada’s team has been expected to rejoin the talks in Washington, but its anticipated return has been delayed and it remains unclear when it will be invited back.

Even when Canada is asked to rejoin, its negotiating team might have to begin without Freeland. She’s on a diplomatic visit to Europe until Thursday, with stops in Germany, Ukraine and France.

Clark said there are expectations Freeland will return to Washington on Friday. From there, he thinks Lighthizer might hold separate bilateral talks with both Canada and Mexico before restarting trilateral discussions that have been on hold since the spring.

“It’s not a negotiating style. He’s just trying to get everything he can out of each side and he prefers to do that one on one,” Clark said.

There are also concerns Canada’s two NAFTA partners have gone much deeper into trilateral issues during Ottawa’s absence.

Over the weekend, Reuters reported that Jesus Seade, the chief negotiator for Mexico’s incoming government, said the U.S. had softened its demands for the inclusion of a so-called “sunset clause” within NAFTA. Canada has flatly rejected the addition of a sunset clause, which would see NAFTA renegotiated every five years.

On Sunday, a Canadian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks, said any U.S.-Mexico agreements on matters that concern all three countries would still require Canada’s signature.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that his government “will only sign a good deal for Canadians.”

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has made efforts to amplify the pressure on Ottawa.

He suggested earlier this month that his administration had deliberately iced Canada out of the NAFTA talks. On Saturday, he said the U.S. ”relationship with Mexico is getting closer by the hour” in a tweet that made no mention of Canada.

“A big Trade Agreement with Mexico could be happening soon!” Trump tweeted.

Some say the White House is also feeling some heat to strike a deal.

Ujczo said because of political and procedural hurdles on the horizon in the U.S. and Mexico, the coming week will be crucial for NAFTA’s renegotiation. He believes the White House will want to lock down a deal soon to ensure it’s completed before the incoming Mexican government takes office on Dec. 1.

“There is a very short window to close this deal and claim victory, and it’s an important political priority for the president,” he said.

“The negotiator-in-chief needs to show he can close a trade deal.”

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Newly elected Hope politicians took part in the Local Government Leadership Academy

The three-day event is aimed at helping new mayors and councillors navigate municipal politics

No records were beat, but Hope’s February temperatures aren’t average

Normally around 3C, the sub-zero temperatures made for both good and bad in the Fraser Valley

New Chilliwack YMCA was ‘worth the wait’ say visitors

Family Day will mark officially opening for new building, after sneak peek tours on Saturday

Opioid overdoses killing three people a month in Chilliwack

35 deaths in 2018 locally compare to 23 in 2017, 13 in 2016 up from about five per year before that

‘Just like Iron Man’: Calgary surgeon undergoes experimental spinal surgery

Dr. Richi Gill was in a freak accident on a boogie board during a family vacation in Hawaii

Deported B.C. man who came to Canada as a baby granted chance at return

Lee Van Heest was deported to the Netherlands in 2017

Homicide police investigate assault turned deadly in Surrey

60-year-old man died at hospital after assault

A Mother’s Wish: Ryan Shtuka’s mother wants her son to be ‘forever known’

‍‍‍‍‍“Let me tell you a story …. it all began with a boy named Ryan”

Sex abuse survivors to meet with Vatican summit organizers

Pope Francis has urged participants to meet with abuse victims before they came to Rome

Ex-FBI official: ‘Crime may have been committed’ by Trump

Andrew McCabe said FBI had good reason to open a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was in league with Russia

B.C. athlete takes home gold in freestyle aerials at Canada Games

Brayden Kuroda won the event with a combined score of 121.65.

Most Read