New U.S. trade official has lots to consider in NAFTA negotiations

The United States finally has an official trade representative.

American lawyer and former deputy trade representative Robert Lighthizer was confirmed with a U.S. Senate vote of 82-12.

Here in Ottawa, his appointment is significant because it means the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump can move ahead with its promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Ottawa’s line since Trump took office has been that Canada is prepared to renegotiate the deal, al-though specifics around Canadian wishes have been largely muted with officials and cabinet ministers opting to take a wait-and-see approach.

That waiting period may soon be over.

Shortly after Lighthizer was confirmed, Trump promised that his administration would move quickly to notify Congress, which requires 90 days notice before any renegotiation can take place.

That notice period gives Congress a chance to draft its wish lists and set priorities before talks officially begin.

For Ottawa, that notice period is expected to provide greater insight into how the often unpredictable Trump administration plans to proceed.

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have told reporters they expect the formal notification will come quickly now that Lighthizer is in place.

Trump’s hatred of NAFTA is hard to miss. He’s repeatedly called it the “worst trade deal” the U.S. has ever signed.

Reforming the trade deal is a critical part of promises he made during the presidential election campaign last year when he vowed repeatedly to stand up for the average American worker.

This despite pleas from industries such as agriculture that argue jobs in their sectors depend on trade.

Washington’s vision of the trade deal hasn’t stayed constant. Trump’s plan for the renegotiated trade deal has evolved from what he initially called a “tweak” to “massive” changes.

With Washington in turmoil over Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, Trump is desperate for a political win.

That desperation could work in Canada’s favour, in part because Trump could be running out of time. The 90-day notice period requirement means negotiations are unlikely to start until at least the autumn.

The timeline is complicated by the 2018 Mexican presidential election, an event that could delay negotiations. Mexico has said it wants most of the talks completed before the elections take place.

Combine that with U.S. midterm congressional elections and the number of available calendar days shrinks even more.

That timeline doesn’t take into account the turmoil in Washington, where calls for Trump to be impeached are gaining steam.

A White House desperate for a deal could mean more leverage for Canada, even though trade negotiations with the U.S. don’t have a reputation for being easy.

In the lead up to the NAFTA renegotiation, Canada’s agriculture industry has started unveiling its desires.

The agriculture industry has made it clear that the current NAFTA works well for them, a position American farm groups agree with.

The beef industry is also asking for access to U.S. beef grades.

The CCA, along with the Canadian Pork Council, want the U.S. to eliminate a requirement for secondary inspections on meat at or near the border.

They told MPs that if both countries consider their food inspection systems as equivalent, that should mean inspections conducted at packing plants are enough.

Canada’s red meat industry has also said any American efforts to reinstate mandatory country of origin labelling must be defeated.

On the grain front, Canada’s wheat industry has said they are open to an American request for access to Canadian grain grading.

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