MONTREAL -- The U.S., Canada and Mexico said they’ve made some progress in the latest round of NAFTA talks, while America’s trade chief warned he’d like negotiations to speed up.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo met here privately Monday before making a joint appearance before the press. The more positive mood since the last time the trade chiefs met, three months ago, suggested that a collapse of the talks wasn’t imminent.
Lighthizer said “some progress was made” in the latest round, including on some of the toughest issues. Freeland said she was pleased with progress so far, and Guajardo said the three countries were on the “right track” to reach a deal.
“We finally began to discuss some of the core issues, so this round was a step forward. But we are progressing very slowly,” Lighthizer said. “We owe it to our citizens who are operating in a state of uncertainty to move much faster.”
While the North American Free Trade Agreement looks to be salvaged for now, talks could run for months or into next year as the three hash out differences. The press conference capped round six, where negotiators over the last week agreed on a proposal related to fighting corruption. That followed agreements in previous rounds on small- and medium-sized businesses and competition.
Hanging over talks is U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to quit the 24-year-old trade pact. Trump regularly has called it a horrible deal and blamed it for U.S. manufacturing job losses, pledging as recently as last week to renegotiate or give a sixth-month notice of withdrawal. Trump, speaking separately Monday, said a key feature of his State of the Union address Tuesday night will be the need for more fair and reciprocal trade.
In his remarks, Lighthizer took aim at Canada in particular, saying its recent World Trade Organization challenge against the U.S. is “a massive attack on all of our trade laws.” He also rejected a Canadian proposal on content rules for cars under NAFTA, saying it would reduce the share of a vehicle made within the region. “This is the opposite of what we are trying to do,” said Lighthizer.
Guajardo said the countries were making progress with flexibility from all three nations. “We still have substantial challenges to overcome. Yet the progress made so far put us on the right track to create landing zones to conclude this process,” he said. Freeland praised the work of negotiators. “That work, I’m pleased to say, is beginning to bear fruit,” she said.
Lighthizer’s comments were more positive than at the trio’s previous joint appearance, in October in Washington, when he said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Canadian and Mexican positions. The Montreal gathering was the trio’s first since October, as they skipped subsequent meetings in Mexico City and Washington.
The most contentious U.S. demands concern the automotive industry, dairy and agriculture, dispute panels, government procurement and a five-year sunset clause that would kill NAFTA unless the three agree to extend it. This round saw Canadian “ideas” -- officials wouldn’t call them formal counterproposals -- on changing how a car’s value is calculated and adding periodic review, rather than a termination clause. Canada and Mexico also have threatened to keep some form of their own investor dispute system that the U.S. wants to opt out of.
Lighthizer said Monday that he wants to see “major breakthroughs” before the next round of NAFTA talks, which is scheduled for late February in Mexico City.