The negotiating teams are trying to agree on the less contentious elements in order to buy some time.
U.S., Canadian, and Mexican officials embarked on a seventh round of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) talks Sunday, even as Donald Trump sparked fresh tensions with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over demands that Mexico pay for his long-touted border wall.
Over the weekend, The Washington Post exclusively revealed that President Peña Nieto had canceled a planned visit to Washington for a second time during Trump’s tenure following a tense phone call between the two leaders over the subject of payment for the wall.
With one eye on a presidential election in Mexico in July, and midterms to be held in the U.S. in November, the three negotiating teams are hurriedly trying to agree on less contentious elements of the trade reboot in order to buy time to tackle the more controversial aspects.
“I am pressing our government, the Mexicans and the U.S. negotiators as hard as I can and encouraging everyone to see if we can’t work over the next two months to get some resolution,” David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., told a roundtable discussion on Feb. 5.
Talks over a revamp of the 23-year-old NAFTA deal, which began last year, have been tumultuous with Trump insisting during his 2016 presidential campaign that the pact was the “single worst trade deal ever approved in this country” and vowing to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement if a consensus on a satisfactory upgrade could not be reached.
The pact is crucial to all three countries. Annual trade among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada was valued at $290 billion in 1993, the year before NAFTA was implemented, and has since increased to more than $1.1 trillion.
Key to the slow progress has been a lack of agreement on issues such as rules of origin, principally regarding Mexico’s lucrative automotive sector; an update of dispute mechanisms, and accusations of protectionism made by the U.S. and Canada towards each other on dairy, poultry, and other products.
“I think there’s going to be major progress on the technical issues and major obstacles on the critical issues,” Bosco de la Vega, head of Mexico’s National Agricultural Council, told Reuters when asked about the likely outcome of the current round of talks.
It was initially hoped that the renegotiation of NAFTA would be completed before Mexico’s upcoming presidential race and U.S. midterms, both of which could complicate the process further.
An anonymous U.S. official told Reuters that there has never been a hard deadline to conclude the talks and that lobbying efforts by U.S. business leaders to preserve the agreement are making an eventual settlement more likely.
Yet Trump’s attitude to the talks continues to concern many.
“You also have a president of the United States who is enormously unpredictable,” former U.S. diplomat Scotty Greenwood told CBC. “He could throw a monkey wrench at any time.”