Ottawa remains close-lipped as NAFTA renegotiations loom

When it comes to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Ottawa has kept its cards very close to its chest.

Don’t expect that strategy to change any time soon.

Canada and the United States have very different rules when it comes to trade negotiations.

In the United States, American trade officials are obligated to publicly unveil a list of priorities to Congress 30 days before any trade negotiation can begin.

That list was expected to be re-leased as early as July 17. NAFTA renegotiations can start as early as Aug. 16. Expected priority areas include targeting Canadian dairy, wheat and wine regulations as well as amending the rules of origin definition.

The American Constitution gives Congress and the U.S. president joint authority over trade agreements.

Major changes require the approval of both parties , which has led some trade experts to argue U.S. President Donald Trump would be best to try and tweak the deal by securing several side-deals rather than try and secure congressional approval of a major renegotiation.

Washington’s plan for NAFTA is anyone’s guess. One day President Trump is threatening to tear up the agreement. Another day he’s simply planning on tweaking it. It’s a roller-coaster ride that can change on the fly and is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Ottawa, it seems, is happy to go along for the ride, so long as it doesn’t have to give a public review afterward.

Traditionally, Canada has preferred to negotiate trade agreements out of the public eye. Canada typically tries to keep disagreements and stalemates in the negotiating room rather than battle it out on the front pages.

Here at home, Canadian officials are under no obligation to publicly list Ottawa’s priority trade areas.

While stakeholders and key sectors are consulted, it’s not uncommon for those conversations to come with an accompanying non-disclosure agreement in order to ensure talks are happening at the negotiation table rather than in the press.

Both Washington and Ottawa launched public consultations on the pending NAFTA renegotiation. South of the border, more than 12,000 submissions were collected with most posted publicly on the U.S. Registry.

Meanwhile, U.S. trade officials are holding three days of public meetings with industry and individuals about what they want to see discussed in the upcoming talks.

Here at home, NAFTA suggestions, wish lists and negotiation advice must be submitted to Ottawa by July 18. Those submissions are not posted publicly, unless the groups writing them decide to release them themselves.

Meanwhile, various parliamentary committees (on both the House and Senate sides) heard from witnesses on the pending NAFTA renegotiation earlier this year.

Ottawa’s strategy is simple. Canada is a smaller country about to enter trade negations with a country known to be a bully at the negotiating table.

The American system works to Canada’s advantage because the U.S. is forced to outline its key priorities ahead of time. We know what the Americans want before we’re required to tell them what we’re seeking.

Ottawa has faced criticism for refusing to negotiate trade deals in public. Transparency around trade deals is essential for ensuring public support and trust going forward.

That argument is entirely understandable. But, so too is the fear of the negotiation going sideways because someone’s nose gets put of joint because of a quote in the paper.

Given how sensitive and unpredictable the current White House is, there is no question this is a real risk. Trade negotiations are complicated. Details matter, such as specifics that cannot be properly captured in a 140-character tweet.

This doesn’t mean Ottawa can keep everyone in the dark. Key sectors must still be kept relatively well informed of the talks, even if those discussions happen only behind closed doors.

Provincial counterparts and relevant bureaucrats must also be kept updated on the talks with Canada’s largest trading partner.

And, when the final deal is reached, Canadians deserve a full explanation, complete with all the details down to the very last tariff line, of what’s been agreed to before Parliament ratifies it.

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