NAFTA negotiations up in the air as U.S. focus drifts

Keep calm and carry on.

That’s the key message Ottawa wants people to follow ahead of the pending renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

United States President Donald Trump hasn’t minced words when it comes to the 1994 trade deal between Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

He repeatedly called it the “worst trade deal” ever signed by the U.S. while on the campaign trail, al-though he tried to reassure Canadians by later suggesting that most of his concerns lie with Mexico and he only wants to “tweak” the Canada sections.

Trump has not said what a “tweak” would look like.

NAFTA emboldens the unique trading relationship Canada and the U.S. have shared for years. Billions of dollars worth of goods and services cross the border every year, including $47 billion in agricultural trade alone.

The original deal was finalized by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who has been advising Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal cabinet as it prepares for the pending renegotiation.

Mulroney was in Ottawa April 6 to meet with cabinet alongside Canada’s ambassador to Washington, David McNaughton. The former prime minister is also an acquaintance of U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay has refused to wade into the NAFTA renegotiation, telling reporters he will deal with the NAFTA file, and any American agricultural demands, when it appears on his desk.

International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and others have said they are willing to modernize the deal, which was struck before things like e-commerce were invented.

Each country has areas they would like to look at, the minister has said.

However, he has not elaborated on what areas Canada has concerns about.

Canada has typically refrained from speaking about trade negotiations in public, a policy the Liberals appear to be adopting. Behind the scenes, however, conversations about the upcoming negotiations are ongoing.

Washington has made its list somewhat clear. Softwood lumber, supply management, grain grading, country-of-origin labelling and concerns about beef have all been mentioned as files the Americans want Canadian movement on.

Despite the list, NAFTA action in Washington appears to be stalled. The U.S. Senate has not confirmed Trump’s pick for U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, a confirmation that will not happen in the next two weeks.

Congress and the Senate are on Easter break.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has not been confirmed either. His confirmation vote has reportedly been scheduled for the evening of April 24, which is the first day the Senate comes back from its two-week pause.

The U.S. trade representative is typically the main contact point for trade negotiations with the U.S., a delay Ross has expressed frustration about publicly.

Canada’s chief negotiator during the talks will be long-time trade guru Steve Verheul, who headed the Canada-European Union trade talks and formerly served as Canada’s chief agriculture negotiator.

Washington has several other ducks it must organize because the White House is required to give the U.S. Congress 90 days notice before a renegotiation of the trade deal can begin.

It’s not clear how high trade sits on Congress’s radar. Officials in Washington have been tied up in recent weeks with the Republican’s health-care reform attempts and the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice.

There are also calls for the President to move ahead with his promised tax reforms.

North of the border, a whiff of a NAFTA story seems to earn a headline. South of the border, the infatuation appears to be, well, a bit more subdued.

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