Annoyed with Canada, Lighthizer considers separate NAFTA deals

US trade czar floats doing a bilateral with Mexico and continuing negotiations with Canada.

Robert Lighthizer with Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

WASHINGTON — The US trade czar is expressing frustration with Canada in the NAFTA negotiations, even floating the idea of concluding a quick agreement with Mexico and work out a deal with Canada later, according to an American lawmaker who attended a meeting with him Feb. 8.

Ron Kind is one of numerous congressmen who attended a rare briefing on Capitol Hill with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who Kind said brought up the notion of separating 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 NAFTA in two, or just splitting 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 US 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 US 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 key issues related to labour costs and outsourced jobs have yet to be sorted out, and the auto rules of origin issue – which deeply involves Mexico – is far from settled.

Sander Levin said the US administration might be annoyed at some of Canada’s recent moves, but he doesn’t see how the dynamics of the negotiation have changed much since the US supposedly entered these talks to bring back manufacturing jobs from Mexico.

”I think Canada’s filing the (World Trade Organization) complaint (against the US) 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.”

However, the US  is stressing its support for renegotiating a three-country NAFTA agreement after comments from an American lawmaker suggesting it was considering splitting Canada and Mexico into separate talks.

“The US objective has been and remains renegotiating and modernizing NAFTA on a trilateral basis,” Amelia Breinig, a spokeswoman with the US trade representative, said in a statement.

”With six rounds of renegotiations completed, some progress has been made, but not nearly enough. As we said (at the last round) in Montreal, we all must redouble our efforts at this crucial time.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill largely support preserving the agreement – and many are critical of their own administration’s handling of the process. The Democrats are more vocal in blaming the Trump administration.

”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 of reducing America’s import- export deficit.

Kind said the approach has been all wrong. He accused the administration of strong-arm tactics designed to make enemies – not deals.

”(Lighthizer) seems inordinately fixated on relative (economic) strength between the countries…. Since we’re the biggest dog on the block everyone should just succumb to all our wishes,” he said of the administration’s attitude.

“I think it’s a lousy negotiating tactic to have. Because these are always gonna be a product of give-and-take, back-and-forth, and we need to create win-win-win situations. But (Lighthizer) 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 US is apparently demanding from Canada: concrete numbers on autos at the next round.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said in an interview that she met with the chief US NAFTA negotiator this week, during her trip to Washington, and that while Canada’s recent ideas on autos have not been completely rejected, the US wants more specific details about how it would work.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2016

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