OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada and the United States
exchanged barbs on Tuesday over sluggish negotiations to update
NAFTA, reflecting mounting tensions over trade talks that appear
unlikely to conclude on schedule.
The talks have effectively stalled as Canada and Mexico seek
to address wide-ranging U.S. demands for changes to the North
American Free Trade Agreement. The early March deadline for
wrapping up the talks has been extended to at least early April,
officials said. But participants have said privately it could
take months longer than that.
Steve Verheul, Canada’s chief negotiator, told an Ottawa
audience that the United States aimed to weaken Canada and
Mexico rather than ensure that the $1.2 trillion trilateral
trade pact benefited all three members.
A few minutes earlier, U.S. Trade Representative Robert
Lighthizer pointedly said in Washington that talks with Mexico
over NAFTA were going well. He made no mention of Canada.
U.S. President Donald Trump frequently threatens to walk
away from NAFTA unless big changes are made. He blames the pact
for U.S. manufacturing job losses and his remarks about quitting
have unsettled financial markets.
Verheul said the talks had achieved little progress on major
issues so far and characterized U.S. negotiators as inflexible.
His comments were easily the gloomiest public remarks about the
talks yet by a Canadian official.
“The U.S. approach is to focus on the U.S. perspective only,
rather than a North American perspective. So they are looking to
strengthen the U.S. and by doing that weaken Canada and Mexico
within the North American economy,” Verheul told a conference
organized by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Canada has made a number of what it calls creative proposals
to address the U.S. insistence that the North American content
of autos be raised. Washington also wants a clause that would
allow any NAFTA member to pull out after five years.
Verheul said a U.S. demand that would slash the amount of
government procurement contracts for Canadian and Mexican firms
“is the worst offer ever made by the U.S. in any trade
Mexico has said the autos rule of origin would have to be
toughened, but gave no details.
Verheul declined to directly address Lighthizer’s comment,
telling reporters Canada would not walk away.
“We have no choice but to continue to … impress on the
U.S. that this cannot be a winner-takes-all agreement,” he said.
“It’s going to take a lot more time at the negotiating table
to try to grind through these issues.”
Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said
Canada “might very well be better off” not signing up to an
updated version of the NAFTA trade pact rather than accepting a