Annoyed with Canada, US trade czar floats idea of separate NAFTA deals: lawmaker
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexico's Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarrea look on as United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer speaks in Montreal, on Jan. 29, 2018. (Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 7, 2018 1:54PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 7, 2018 4:03PM EST
WASHINGTON -- The United States trade czar is expressing frustration with Canada in the NAFTA negotiations, even floating the idea of concluding a quick agreement with Mexico and sorting out a deal with Canada later, according to an American lawmaker who attended a meeting with him Wednesday.
Ron Kind is one of numerous congressmen who attended a rare briefing on Capitol Hill with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who Kind said brought up the notion of splitting the NAFTA negotiations as a way of advancing the talks.
"He thinks more progress has been made with Mexico. And that there might be a way to wrap things up and down and just maintain ongoing negotiations with Canada at that point," said Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, as he left the meeting.
"He would not be dissatisfied with just doing a bilateral with Mexico and continuing negotiations (with Canada)."
Kind wouldn't say whether Lighthizer talked about splitting the actual NAFTA in two, or just separating the negotiations: "You should probably ask him," he said. Three other lawmakers who left the meeting wouldn't confirm or deny what Lighthizer said.
The U.S. trade czar, for his part, brushed off the question: "You know I don't talk," Lighthizer said as he left the meeting, which was convened to discuss the state of the NAFTA negotiations with one of two congressional committees that handles trade.
Some meeting participants said Lighthizer's remarks might be tactical -- to simply up the pressure on Canada to accede to U.S. demands.
"Negotiations are all about leverage," said Brian Higgins, a Democrat from upper New York state."So finding those leverage points is important. Could it be done trilaterally? I don't know."
Some Democrats called it strange to say things are going more smoothly with Mexico -- when the most fundamental issues involve Mexico and have yet to be settled, including labour rights, outsourced jobs and auto rules of origin.
Sander Levin said the U.S. administration might be annoyed at some of Canada's recent trade moves, but he doesn't see how the dynamics of the negotiation have changed much since the U.S. supposedly entered these talks to bring back manufacturing jobs from Mexico.
"I think Canada's filing the (World Trade Organization) complaint (against the U.S.) was very unsettling," Levin said.
"But my own judgment is in terms of the basic issue, with Mexico, they're moving backwards. ... I don't see how when they're moving backwards on this key issue, with Mexico, that it makes much sense to talk about a separate agreement with Mexico."
One progressive group allied with the administration on some trade issues says it's not surprised by the talk of two negotiations.
"I have heard that," said Lori Wallach of the Washington-based progressive group Public Citizen.
"There is a scenario where Mexico and the U.S. have a deal and the agreement with Canada lapses. Which is crazy."
She said nobody entering the negotiations would have expected more problems between the U.S. and Canada. But she said the Trump administration has grown annoyed with what it perceives to be political posturing by Canada, aimed at its own domestic audience.
Yet many U.S. lawmakers are critical of their own government.
There is little appetite on Capitol Hill for ending NAFTA -- and many lawmakers view their own administration's behaviour as jeopardizing the agreement. The Democrats are more vocal about it.
"We've got a president who is impulsive and incoherent at best. And he started all this," Higgins said, adding that there likely can't be an agreement unless it satisfies Trump's demand to reduce America's import-export deficit.
Kind said the U.S. approach has been all wrong. He accused the administration of strong-arm tactics designed to make enemies -- not deals.
"Since we're the biggest dog on the block (Lighthizer thinks) everyone should just succumb to all our wishes," he said.
"I think it's a lousy negotiating tactic to have. Because (negotiations) are always gonna be a product of give-and-take, back-and-forth, and we need to create win-win-win situations. But he thinks because we've got the biggest GDP we can muscle anyone to our desire. ...
"I'm just concerned. If we drop the ball on this, if we can't figure out a way to live in peace and harmony with our two border neighbours, there's not a country in the world that's going to have an interest in sitting down and negotiating with the United States of America. What's the point?"
One thing the U.S. is apparently demanding from Canada: concrete numbers on autos at the next round.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said in an interview that she met the chief U.S. NAFTA negotiator this week, during her trip to Washington and that while Canada's recent ideas on autos have not been completely rejected, the U.S. wants more specific details about how it would work.