Can Trump pull USA from NAFTA

Can Donald Trump pull the U.S. out of NAFTA all on his own?

Some lawyers say withdrawal without congressional approval would be unconstitutional, but the politics of the play might be another matter

CHARLESTON, WV - MAY 05: United States Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump models a hard hat in support of the miners during his rally at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. Trump became the Republican presumptive nominee following his landslide win in indiana on Tuesday.(Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images)

Listening to President Donald Trump, or reading his Twitter musings, sure leaves the impression he claims unfettered power to yank the United States clear of the North American Free Trade Agreement whenever he feels like it. “I think we’ll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point, okay?” Trump said in a rambling late-summer speech in Phoenix. He followed up with this classic Trumpian Tweet: “We are in the NAFTA (worst trade deal ever made) renegotiation process with Mexico & Canada. Both being very difficult, may have to terminate?”

A superficial reading of NAFTA lends some support to the notion that Trump might have the power to act on his bluster. The deal among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, which came into force in 1994, does include Article 2205, which lets any of the three countries back out on six-months notice. And, since U.S. presidents have broad power over foreign affairs, that might seem to be Trump’s clause to trigger. Indeed, some trade experts read it that way—but others see it differently.

READ MORE: NAFTA: A brief historyFor instance, Riyaz Dattu, of the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in Toronto, says Trump’s problem is that while presidents negotiate trade deals, Congress passes the laws to make them a reality in the U.S. “President Trump would have to get Congress to repeal the [NAFTA] provisions that were written into U.S. law,” Dattu says. He concedes, though, that the potential clash over presidential and congressional clout when it comes to quitting a trade deal is “an area that has not been tested.” Trade and constitutional lawyers on both sides of the border agree that if Trump tried to act unilaterally, a court battle would likely ensue, perhaps ending up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

That assumes, however, sufficient political will among Trump’s foes to fight him over NAFTA. Colin Robertson, a former diplomat with long experience in the U.S., who has analyzed the new NAFTA talks in depth for the Ottawa-based Canadian Global Affairs Institute, predicts Trump would carry the day. “In a practical sense, if he says, ‘I’m pulling the plug,’ I don’t think there will be enough pressure in Congress to question his authority,” he says.

RELATED: NAFTA: What each country wants out of a new deal

Still, Robertson says potent U.S. domestic forces have already pulled Trump back from the brink once when he was close to trying to exit the agreement on his own say-so alone. When his administration was approaching its 100th day in power last April, rumours spread that he was contemplating a hasty NAFTA withdrawal. The U.S. farm lobby weighed in with the White House against that precipitous move, Robertson says, and succeeded. NAFTA supporters hope that if Trump again came close to abrogating, domestic forces would rally once more rally to persuade him to retreat.

If not, the question of Trump’s unilateral power to turn his anti-NAFTA rhetoric into reality will stop being an intriguing debating point for lawyers, and turn into a matter of massive real-world implications for a continental economy.

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Can Trump pull out of NAFTA?

Can Donald Trump pull the U.S. out of NAFTA all on his own?

Some lawyers say withdrawal without congressional approval would be unconstitutional, but the politics of the play might be another matter

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Canada has Edge in NAFTA Negotiations

Experience, outreach give Canada an edge in achieving NAFTA renovation goals

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NAFTA

Canada v Mexico: Trump seeks to divide and conquer in Nafta negotiations

Both countries are scrambling to best handle a president who ranks among the more unpredictable elements of the upcoming negotiations

Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump.
Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty Images
 The rhetoric against a neighbouring country dominated Donald Trump’s presidential campaign: a billion-dollar wall, a crackdown on immigration, and a steep border tax. Yet when Trump fired the opening shot in his trade war, it was aimed not at Mexico – but at Canada.

First came an average 20% tariff on Canadian softwood lumber. Months later the Trump administration piled another tariff of nearly 7% on the sector.

Trump launched a broad attack on several sectors north of the border. “Canada, what they’ve done to our dairy farmworkers is a disgrace,” he told reporters. “We can’t let Canada or anybody else take advantage and do what they did to our workers and to our farmers … included in there is lumber, timber and energy. So we’re going to have to get to the negotiating table with Canada very, very quickly.”

The sharp reversal – a few months earlier Trump had characterised the US-Canada relationship as “outstanding” – came as a surprise to many.

“Step aside, China and Mexico: Canada is now Donald Trump’s whipping-boy du jour on trade,” said the Canadian Press, while Politico offered their thoughts on why president had not gone after Mexico first: “Canada is an easy target and doesn’t have as many weapons to fight back.”

Others said it was long overdue. “Canada was getting a free ride,” said Federico Estévez, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “All of the fire was headed south of the US border – so Canada was getting off easy.”

Estévez pointed to the looming renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement to explain the turnaround. “I think Trump understood something basic, which is that the US will not be able to tweak Nafta or rework it unless it splits up Canada and Mexico and makes Canada squirm just as well,” he said. “You want to open up some battlefronts – and that’s what he’s effectively done, to the surprise of everybody.”

With the renegotiations slated to begin on 16 August, all of the interactions of past months – from pleasantries to attacks – are again under the microscope. Against a backdrop of grievances over trade deficits and protectionist policies, officials in both Canada and Mexico are also scrambling to shore up strategies to best handle a president who ranks among the more unpredictable elements of the upcoming negotiations.

Both countries have much at stake. Canada sends about three-quarters of its annual exports to the US while nearly 400,000 people a day cross the shared border. In Mexico, some 80% of exports end up in the US.

Mexican and Canadian officials have been laying the groundwork for months. Trudeau’s inner circle have fostered close contacts with the Trump administration, while representatives from Canadian government and business have been criss-crossing the US to reinforce how Americans benefit from their relationship with Canada, said Colin Robertson of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“There have been, I think, 170 visits by Canadians to the States since January. And not just to Washington but also into Trump territory,” he said. “And it’s not just ministers, it’s legislators and premiers and provincial legislators.”

The aim, said Robertson, is to mitigate what he described as Trump’s “situational politics”, which see the president shift stances depending on the audience he’s addressing. He pointed to Trump’s swipe at Canadian dairy as an example, as it came while the president addressed an audience in Wisconsin.

In Mexico, the job of managing relations with the Trump administration has fallen to Luis Videgaray, a foreign minister whose experience in the world of finance has overlapped with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Despite initial setbacks – Trump signed an executive order to build the border wall and tweeted that Mexico would pay for it even as Videgaray was heading to Washington to meet with Kushner – the minister and his small team have earned some plaudits as the threat of Trump has apparently diminished for Mexico and the peso bounced back after a Trump-inspired slump.

So far, Mexico’s strategy for handling Trump seems to lie in trying to save some provisions of Nafta at all costs, such as investor protections, analysts say.

The government closed online consultations late last month, though it has attracted criticism for appearing to pay closer attention to the country’s big business elite while ignoring the interests of smaller firms and beleaguered workers.

“I’ve not read the national interests of Mexico spelled out,” said Carlos Heredia of the Centre for Research and Teaching of Economics. “There hasn’t been any sort of open consultation – the online consultation is sort of a joke – but there’s nothing saying, ‘We are going to represent the national interest of Mexico, not just the top echelons of business and politics.’”

Mexico released its objectives for Nafta negotiations last week. It joined Canada in opposing US plans to eliminate dispute resolution mechanism known as Chapter 19, but also will propose anti-graft initiatives and provisions for small business and the digital economy. Energy will also be on the table as Mexico approved a reform to open its oil industry in 2013.

From immigration to the environment, Trump’s political stances – widely despised in both Mexico and Canada – could colour discussions at the negotiating table, raising questions of how America’s neighbours will respond.

While Trudeau’s approval ratings remain high, suggesting many Canadians are comfortable with his reluctance to chastise Trump, Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto is even more unpopular than the US leader – and his apparent unwillingness to talk tough with Trump is widely as a weakness.

“The greatest problem of the Mexican response to Trump has been that the Mexican government has acted over and over again as if the constituency of its foreign policy were only one person: Donald Trump,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor of CIDE. “This has left it open to vulnerabilities, the most of important of which is an inability to voice the legitimate grievances Trump causes many regular Mexicans.”

Despite their differences, Trump has demonstrated a level of cordiality and friendship with Trudeau, said Laura Dawson, who heads the Canada Institute at Washington’s Wilson Centre.

“It’s kind of funny in the tweets that I’ve been reading. When he’s talking about his two neighbours, he calls them, Justin and the Mexican president,” she said. “I don’t know if he doesn’t know Trudeau’s last name, I don’t know if he knows Peña Nieto’s name at all – but its always Justin and the Mexicans.”

What’s certain is that Canada and Mexico now realise they’re in it together. “There was some public opinion, at least in Canada, that we could go at it alone, without Mexico because they’re in the crosshairs and we’re not. I think that that sentiment has really subsided,” said Dawson, pointing to official statements from both countries that reiterate the importance of the trilateral agreement.

While Trump has gone after both neighbours, he’s also demonstrated that he’s open to changing his mind on things, said Dawson.

“He’s willing to find a parade and get in front of it, so I think that if Canada and Mexico are skillful enough about giving the president some wins that he can claim – you know, modernisation of the agreement, certain things that affect labour or manufacturing – I think they can also move ahead on the modernisation agenda on the Nafta.”

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Softwood Lumber and NAFTA Hearings

There’s no summer vacation for Canada on the trade file

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House Committee International Trade: The relationship with Mexico

Standing Committee on International Trade


NUMBER 069 
l
1st SESSION 
l
42nd PARLIAMENT 

EVIDENCE

Thursday, May 18, 2017

[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]

 

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

    My remarks will cover the upcoming trade negotiations, the Canada-Mexico relationship, and the need for middle powers like Canada and Mexico to stand up in support of the rules-based, liberal international system.

    With regard to the North American accord, we need a new North American accord. NAFTA worked to the benefit of all three parties—Canada, U.S.A., and Mexico—but it is time to bring the NAFTA negotiated before the digital age and the arrival of e-commerce into the 21st century.

    The trans-Pacific partnership would have largely accomplished this, but the Trump administration has withdrawn from this Obama administration initiative, so we need to adjust to the current circumstances. A new agreement would include and set the standards in emerging areas like e-commerce and the growing digital trade. We can also make improvements to integrate into the agreement standards on labour and the environment.

    We need to address labour mobility, including the mutual recognition of accreditation. Then we can make maximum use of the talent pool that North America enjoys, but that we need to harness, to make us the most competitive region in the world. This means provision for trade adjustment so that those who are displaced by trade decisions or by efficiency improvements in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are guaranteed the opportunity to improve their skills or have training in another area. In doing so, we have the opportunity to create, just as NAFTA did in its time, the new model for trade agreements: a realistic but progressive trade agreement that gives a helping hand to those who are displaced or who lose out.

    A trilateral trade negotiation leading to a new North American economic accord would respect the sovereignties of the three nations. It would be a very different model from that of the European Union with its centralized and heavy bureaucratic oversight. Rather, we would continue with the current approach of ad hoc working groups to ensure and evergreen the agreement to allow for continuous improvement in areas like transportation.

    In the coming weeks, we’ll hear a lot of noise and nonsense about Canada and Mexico out of Washington. We need to distinguish between what is real and what is theatre. To paraphrase the great Gretzky, we need to go “where the puck is going”, and keep our eyes on the net and on the goals that we want and can score.

    With regard to Canada-Mexico, NAFTA transformed the Canada-Mexico relationship from one of cordial distance based on a shared neighbour into that of family. Today, there is an annual, increasing flow of two million Canadians to Mexico, especially during the winter months. Canadian investment, mining, manufacturing, and banking have increased manyfold, while trade has more than tripled—even faster than with our traditional partners in Europe and Japan. Today, Mexico is our third-largest trading partner, but it’s not reciprocal. Mexican investment in Canada never took. There is one notable exception: Grupo Bimbo’s acquisition of Canada Bread in 2014. It now operates 17 bakeries and employs over 4,000 across Canada.

    The imposition of the visa in 2009 affected more than half of Mexican travel to Canada, effectively chilling tourism, study, and investment. The lifting of the visa this past December and its replacement with the electronic travel authorization has resulted in a significant increase in Mexican travel to Canada. We are already reaping rewards and more tourists, but we should be doing more in terms of tourism promotion. We expect more students, especially given President Trump’s comments about building a wall on the Mexican border. We should encourage recruitment visits here by middle and high schools, university and vocational schools, and provincial education ministers.

    Beyond students, we could do a lot more in joint research projects in manufacturing and agri-food. In the longer term, ease of entry into Canada would also generate more investment, but we need to target Mexican investment that matches Canada. Most promising are the automotive and automotive parts sector and the energy and energy services sector.

    Goldman Sachs estimates that by 2050, Mexico will overtake China in terms of per capita GDP. There is already a middle class of 40 million in Mexico. Mexico is our springboard into the potential of the Americas. We already have preferred observer status in the Pacific Alliance that includes Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Chile. In the short-term, before the end of the year, Prime Minister Trudeau should lead a “Team Canada” mission with premiers, business leaders, and university presidents to Mexico to deepen Canada-Mexico relations and to underline our solidarity with Mexico in negotiating a new North American accord.

    The picture of solidarity, Mr. Trudeau with President Peña Nieto in Mexico City, would be appreciated in Mexico. Its significance would also be recognized in the United States, and it would give encouragement to our many allies in the Congress, the states, the business community, and even within the Trump administration.

  (1545)

    A vigorous partnership with Mexico is already working to our mutual benefit, but we still have to realize the full potential of the Canada-Mexico relationship.

    In terms of worry about middle powers, we live in a world of disarray. The rules-based, liberal international system and supporting architecture that Canadians helped engineer in the period after the Second World War has kept the peace and created the conditions for extraordinary growth and prosperity. Today, it is under strain and in need of reform and rejuvenation, and the middle powers need to step up. China and Russia would like to see a return to spheres of influence and a concert of great powers. This would not serve Canadian or Mexican interests.

    The United States, which guaranteed this system and built it on its military might, wants more burden-sharing by like-minded states. This we must do, because the hard truth is that the U.S. carries and sustains the system under which Canadians and Mexicans have thrived. We need to stand up with like-minded middle powers such as Mexico and reaffirm our support and commitment to the rules-based, liberal international system. A new, progressive approach to sustainable trade and labour mobility in partnership with Mexico and other democratic middle powers is the place to begin the necessary reform and rejuvenation.

    Thank you, Mr. Chair.

 

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NAFTA Renegotiation: The Process

What it’ll take to renegotiate NAFTA

The “worst trade deal” in U.S. history, as President Trump refers to the North American Free Trade Agreement, may get a shake-up soon.

The Trump administration wants to renegotiate the 23-year-old trade deal, the first of many steps standing between Trump’s promises and actual changes to the document.

The process won’t be easy. Negotiators will have to consider the wildly different political environments in Canada, the United States and Mexico. And by extension, they’ll have to navigate the myriad business interests that will lobby for favorable tweaks. Throw in the 2018 midterm elections in the United States and the presidential election in Mexico, and experts think the process could take years.

Here’s what lies ahead

The process begins

in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Canada

begins their plans

… and so does Mexico

President Trump will send Congress formal notice of his intent to renegotiate NAFTA. This will set a start date for the negotiations and list specific changes he wants to make to the trade deal.

Canada’s process is less formal. The negotiating team will consult with the provinces — which have a good deal of power in Canada and may have to eventually implement some of the agreement’s provisions — and relevant industry leaders.

 

Mexico’s setting of priorities largely occurs behind closed doors. The negotiating team traditionally confers with private-sector leaders, most notably the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial — similar to a Chamber of Commerce — though this is not legally required.

 

Congress then has at least 90 days to review the president’s memo and offer suggestions. The bulk of this review occurs within trade negotiation subcommittees in the House and the Senate, but other committees that cover trade-sensitive products will weigh in, too.

Its Parliament is largely looped out of the process. Because it’s controlled by the same party as the prime minister, Parliament’s approval of the final deal is all but ensured.

 

The negotiators will also confer with members of Congress, especially those whose constituents rely heavily on exports to the United States.

Finally, all three countries meet for negotiations

Representatives from the three governments — probably the U.S. trade representative for the United States, the minister of foreign affairs for Canada and the secretary of foreign affairs for Mexico — will begin negotiations.

This process could take months or even years, and the representatives will continually be consulting with their home country’s political leaders to adjust priorities and check in about concessions. Once they come to an agreement, the deal will go back to the countries’ legislatures for implementation.

Congress votes

Parliament votes

Congress votes

Both houses of Congress will give an up-or-down vote on the new trade agreement. No amendments are allowed.

Both houses of Parliament will give an up-or-down vote on the new trade agreement. No amendments are allowed.

 

The Congress will vote on the agreement if it contains substantial changes. If the changes are more superficial, the president alone has the authority to implement the new agreement.

If necessary, state, province and local governments will then pass laws that implement the agreement. This is most likely to occur in Canada, where power is much less centralized than in the United States and Mexico.

What happens if negotiations fail?

It is possible, though experts think it’s unlikely, that this process will fail — that the countries will be unable to reach a deal and NAFTA will fall apart.

“Canada is so dependent on the U.S., they simply have to have a deal,” said Philip Cross, a trade researcher at the Canadian nonpartisan Fraser Institute. And Mexico is in a similar economic position.

The United States has a wider variety of trading partners and is therefore less dependent on NAFTA, but for many U.S. industries, such as agriculture, the trade agreement is still vital to staying afloat.

But if negotiations fall apart, countries could withdraw from NAFTA with a simple six-month warning, the same process Trump came a few meetings and a U.S. map away from triggering.

Correction May 4, 2017: A previous version of this article misstated that there is a 60-day warning before a country can withdraw from NAFTA. It is, in fact, six months.

Sources

Mexican process informed by Alvaro Santos, a law professor at Georgetown University, and Fausto Hernandez Trillo, an economics professor at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. Canadian process informed by Philip Cross, a trade researcher at the Fraser Institute; Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and vice president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; and Andrea Kay Bjorklund, a law professor at McGill University. U.S. process informed by Monica de Bolle and Gary Hufbauer, fellows at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Noun project icons from H. Alberto Gongora, Illarion Gordon, Antoine Dieulesaint, Shashank Singh, Chelsea Carlson and Gregor Cresnar.

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NAFTA Renegotiation

NAFTA GETS NASTY

Wendy Mesley reports on how trade between the U.S. and Canada got some unwanted attention this week

http://www.cbc.ca/news/thenational/nafta-gets-nasty-1.4091817 00:00 05:29

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 3.04.47 PM

Common interest will ensure Canada-U.S. trade conflicts get solved: Chris Hall CBC

Beyond the ‘noise’ of Trump’s rhetoric are compelling interests for trade co-operation, experts say

By Chris Hall, CBC News Posted: Apr 29, 2017 5:00 AM ETLast Updated: Apr 30, 2017 2:35 PM ET

NAFTA renegotiations won't be completed quickly, says former ambassador to the U.S. Raymond Chrétien, which provides an incentive for the Trump administration to complete a deal with Canada on softwood lumber.

NAFTA renegotiations won’t be completed quickly, says former ambassador to the U.S. Raymond Chrétien, which provides an incentive for the Trump administration to complete a deal with Canada on softwood lumber. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Close

Sunday Scrum: Mixed signals on NAFTA 9:45

Poster of video clip

Canada remains confident a deal can be reached with the United States on softwood lumber without repeating the drawn-out trade litigation of the past.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr says reaching a new long-term deal is the best option, even as he repeats his warning that jobs will be lost in Canada as a result of the U.S. lumber industry’s lobbying for new duties on Canadian imports.

“The complications are that you have lobbies at work, lots of political pressures. But our experience is, in all of these conversations, at every level of the United States government and beyond … people see the common interest.”

The U.S. Commerce Department imposed preliminary duties of between three and 24 per cent on Canadian softwood imports this week. More anti-dumping duties are expected in the future.

‘We won’t sign a bad deal’

Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that the White House had hoped to get this dispute out of the way before NAFTA negotiations begin.

Michael Froman, who served as former president Barack Obama’s top trade negotiator, told CBC News that a deal was in reach, but the Canadian side felt it could get better terms with Trump.

Trudeau Trump 20170213

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump shake hands after a joint news conference at the White House in Washington in February. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But in an interview with CBC Radio’s The House, the natural resources minister said there was “no good deal possible from the Canadian perspective” with the Obama administration.

“We weren’t prepared to sign a bad deal. We won’t sign a bad deal. If we have to wait it out we will,” said Carr. “And we’ll use all the options available to us, but I don’t think that’s in the interests of either Canada or the United States.”

Even so, Carr believes there’s an opportunity to get a deal. It’s a view shared by Quebec’s lead negotiator, Raymond Chrétien, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Washington in the 1990s.

“I’m confident that there’s a window perhaps for a negotiated settlement for the following reason: Mr. Trump has indicated that he wanted a quick … renegotiation of NAFTA, but this is not possible in my view,” Chrétien said.

“So why not solve the lumber dispute before you tackle the more comprehensive, complicated NAFTA negotiations? So hopefully there’s a small window there, and I’m sure that in Ottawa they would welcome a softwood lumber deal.”

Pushback from U.S. exporters

Softwood is not the only trade irritant Trump is highlighting. He’s blamed Canada for being unfair to American dairy producers. He’s still threatening to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement unless he can negotiate a fair deal for American workers.

USA-TRUMP/MONUMENTS

Trade experts say U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive posture on trade has alarmed the U.S. agriculture sector, which relies on foreign markets. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C., said Trump’s rhetoric this week claiming NAFTA has been horrible for the U.S. and a disaster doesn’t match the reality that the trade deal “has been pretty darn good” for the U.S.

“When Donald Trump’s announcements were coming out this week, the U.S. agriculture sector pushed back really hard. U.S. farms depend on exports to Canada and Mexico, and they were having none of this. So he’s gotten a lot of pushback.”

Dawson said the Trump Administration is trying to stir up American opposition to free trade following the failure to get rid of Obamacare and as it meets congressional opposition to a budget plan.

That’s why Dawson thinks Trudeau’s approach is the right one, reminding Trump in one of their phone calls this week of the negative impact that scrapping NAFTA would have on jobs and businesses on both sides of the border.

Partner with Mexico

Dawson said Canada should also work with Mexico as both countries prepare to discuss changes to NAFTA.

Trump Trade

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto shakes his fist as he talks about the value of made-in-Mexico products. Canada and Mexico should work together in advance of NAFTA talks, says trade expert Laura Dawson. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

“Mexico has really strong retaliatory power in the United State. Every bit of corn the U.S. exports is bought by Mexico. If they stop buying U.S. corn that would be a big deal for U.S. agriculture. Similarly, the security front — if they stop co-operating on the U.S. southern border … that’s a big deal for the United States.

“So I think Canada needs to be a partner for Mexico.”

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat in the U.S., wrote this week for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute that managing the Trump file — and getting it right — has to be Trudeau’s first priority.

“While much of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is merely noise, what is dangerous about the noise is the effect it is having on business confidence, both domestic and foreign.”

What’s gone beyond noise now is the dispute over softwood lumber. Carr said the federal government is prepared to assist those in the forest sector who are affected.

“There will be closures. Sawmills will be under pressure. But nothing yet is certain except that we are prepared with a number of policy options that we will work out with our provincial counterparts, and we will be ready.”

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NAFTA and the Next Election

The next big federal election agenda item has been set: Trump and trade

By the time Canadians next go to the polls, all the players will be lined up to fight over the biggest trade agreement in a generation

US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 13, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Here we go again. Another federal election that will hinge on free trade.

This is not so much a prediction as it is a simple matter of following the timelines. By 2019, the next federal election, the NAFTA re-negotiations will either be in the dramatic end game or the very contentious ratification phase. The Liberal government will be consumed by the deal, as it already is today. The Conservatives and the NDP will both have new leaders desperate to define themselves by the biggest economic deal of a  generation. What to protect and what to give up? Unions will want a new deal on car manufacturing and will try to stick it to Mexico. Dairy farmers in Quebec will be fighting for supply management. You will hear the phrase “country of label origins” so often it will sound like the name of a band. Softwood lumber, beef, pharmaceuticals—oh, the lawyers are already priapic at the possibilities. We’ll even have the soundtrack of Brian Mulroney singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to Donald Trump. Get ready to negotiate like it’s 1988.

“At the earliest I think the renegotiation—with or without Mexico—will take at least a year, probably 19 months,” says Colin Robertson, the vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former diplomat who implemented NAFTA back in 1993. “After that we have to go for ratification, which adds on another year plus. My guess is that NAFTA, or whatever we call it, doesn’t get wrapped up until spring or summer 2019, meaning it will be front and centre in our October 2019 election.”

READ MORE: A Trump trade war with Mexico would be a disaster for both sides

But wait. Isn’t this all supposed to unfold a lot quicker than that? Didn’t Donald Trump say this was just a matter of a few “tweaks”? How long could that take? Isn’t Trump all chummy with Justin Trudeau over their Women’s Business Council?

If you believe that then you might as well believe your microwave is spying on you. Just listen to the Trump people who are in charge of the NAFTA renegotiation. They are not predicting a trade war with us; they believe they are already in one. We just refuse to believe it.

“We’ve been in a trade war for decades,” new U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross told Bloomberg News recently, as he clarified why the U.S. is launching a radical series of trade negotiations that will include a head-on collision with China and ripping up NAFTA. Comparing trade negotiations to war is standard fare for the Trump administration, where hyperbolic, confrontational rhetoric is the vernacular. Turns out the art of the deal is really a euphemism for an eye-gouging brawl.

Ross and Trump are obsessed with the dangers of trade deficits. It is their white whale and they’re likely just as mythical. The fact is, most economists agree that trade deficits are not necessarily bad for the U.S. economy nor do they reflect some camouflaged version of a trade war, as Ross asserts. There are many reasons why the U.S. imports more than it exports, and some of those reasons actually help the economy. But billionaires like Trump and Ross don’t trifle with details. Every minor issue is elevated to its maximum threat level, so a trade imbalance becomes a trade war. That’s why when Trump casually remarked that the coming changes to NAFTA will merely be “tweaks,” he was so off brand. Trumps don’t tweak, they transform—or, at least, they say they will. Ross has now corrected the record. “It’s not going to be a shooting war,” he continued to Bloomberg, as if the bench mark for an acceptable negotiation was merely a lack of bullets. “If people know you have the big bazooka, you probably don’t have to use it.”

So there it is. Either Wilbur Ross has a bazooka in his trade pocket or he’s just really excited to negotiate with Canada. Whatever it is: by his own admission, a trade war is coming. That warning was reiterated this week during the confirmation hearing for Robert Lighthizer, the incoming trade secretary. Both Republicans and Democrats pressed him to crack down on trade with Canada, including digital piracy, counterfeit products and softwood lumber. “I’ve had a variety of issues with respect to Canada that have been raised by senators,” Lighthizer said. “There are a number of things we have to address with respect to Canada.”

None of this is a surprise to Team Trudeau. They have done the pragmatic thing and fanned out across the U.S. this week like the snowstorm Stella itself—blanketing politicians with information about the benefits of an open border and free trade with Canada. To their credit, they have not been lulled into complacency by the purring of the Trump lions. They have set up a special Trump team inside the PMO, shuffled the cabinet to get competent and connected people like Chrystia Freeland and Andrew Leslie in key spots, and taken advice from everyone who can help, from Derek Burney to Brian Mulroney. Conservatives I have spoken to have grudgingly acknowledged that the PM is doing all the right things.

The only person griping is NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who believes that unless Trudeau is out there calling Trump a fascist, he’s nothing more than a quisling. Mulcair can say stuff like this because he’s now in his Easy Rider phase, wildly gunning it down the last miles of his political highway and sticking it to the man. Go man go. He deserved better from his party and if he wants to bring back some hippie anger to the NDP, damn the consequences.

READ MORE: Why Canada—and its economy—has plenty to fear from Trump

For the Prime Minister, though, all things must be put through the political calculator, especially with Canada’s largest trading partner. We don’t get to pick the U.S. President any more than we pick our own parents, so Trudeau’s tactical charm offensive is a legitimate response. This week the Prime Minister is in New York to reinforce the close bond of Canada and the U.S. during 9/11. Last week he was in Texas at an energy conference talking about oil. Meanwhile, other ministers, MPs and premiers are hitting 11 states, from Kentucky to Wisconsin, Indiana to Florida. It’s better to jaw-jaw than war-war, as Winston Churchill liked to say.

The problem is, it might not make much difference. The next election will still be about the trade deal: What was won, what was lost, what concessions were made, what victories were gained. Look at the timeline. The President needs to gives Congress 90 days’ notification in order to kick start the renegotiation of NAFTA, but he can’t rush too much because Wilbur Ross’s team still isn’t in place. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s follow Ross’s “bazooka approach”—the fast-track option—and assume the President gives notice in the next few weeks. Then what?

Here are the blocks of time you have to bake into the process at the bare minimum. Congress needs 180 days’ warning before signing the deal, as the Globe and Mail has reported, and another 105 days for the International Trade Commission to look over the deal and put out a report. Then there is another 6o-day period for amendments. That’s already 435 days, deep into 2018—and that’s if everything goes smoothly.

No serious person thinks it will go smoothly, even if Congress tries to fast-track the timelines. Contentious issues like softwood lumber, automobiles and, wait for it, water, could blow this thing up. The free trade deal with the European Union took years and it was almost derailed by the Walloons. We don’t even know who the U.S. version of the Walloons will be, but in America, Walloons are super-sized, so expect a few hurdles. Just look back at the former trade deals with the U.S. as precedent.

“We finished negotiations of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in October 1987 and then made some more changes in December before signature in January 1988,” says Robertson. “Then we fought an election on it. Then on NAFTA we finished negotiations in early 1993 and put it through the implementing legislation, finishing in June 1993. Then came the October election and we had to do the labour and environmental accords. Clinton only got the U.S. Congress to pass it in November 1993, a year after he was elected and signed in December.”

Talking to Robertson about trade timelines makes a mockery of the idea that there are simple tweaks out there. There aren’t. The first U.S.–Canada Free Trade Agreement took four years. When we brought in Mexico to make it NAFTA, it took another four years. The Trans Pacific Partnership, which Trump just crushed, has been 11 years in the making. People talk about the Doha Development Round, which started in 2001, as if was a mythical character in a box-office flop called Fantastic Trade Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Saul Loeb/Getty

Let’s add one more wrinkle here: Washington gridlock. Even though Republicans control the House, the Senate and the presidency, the debate over replacing Obamacare has revealed the unified government to be more like a dysfunctional family at a Christmas dinner. “Trump is no Lyndon Johnson,” says Robertson, “and while he is better than Obama at working congressional leadership, my friends tell me there are already antagonisms at the staff level between the Speaker/majority leader in the Senate and the White House.” Pass the gravy.

READ MORE: Trudeau can’t afford to just play Trump one-on-one

Not everyone thinks it will go this long. I spoke with Eddie Goldenberg, Jean Chretien’s former senior political advisor, who believes the process could wrap up faster. “The Trump Administration will do its best to finish before the midterms in the U.S., so it is unlikely that the negotiations will be continuing during the next Canadian election campaign,” he says. Maybe. But as Robertson points out, the implementation and ratification will take another year-plus. “If there is any election issue,” Goldenberg says, “it will be about the government’s record—positive or negative—with respect to the outcome of the negotiations.”

That is true and the battle lines will quickly be drawn. The NDP needs to regain the union vote as it tacks back to the left and will likely oppose much of the deal unless it is radically changed to protect Canadian jobs, something no one here has signalled. But until Jack Layton, opposing free trade was the ticket to the NDP’s best success, and that formula will no doubt be back. The Conservatives are in a full identity crisis now, and will have to figure out if they want to play tough with the U.S. and go back to the Sir John A. MacDonald days of a National Policy—essentially copying Trump’s Buy American stance with a Buy Canadian—or if they want to follow the pro-free trade Mulroney-Harper path, which is more likely but offers less differentiation from the Liberals. Either way, the free trade deal will be the target. Everyone better grab a bazooka.

Trade with the U.S. has defined many Canadian elections, from 1867 to 1911 to 1988. Might as well get ready now and pencil in 2019 as another election fought over free trade.

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Getting Ready for NAFTA Negotiations

For Canada, all hands on deck during NAFTA renegotiations

The rules of the road for trade with our biggest trading partner are about to be renegotiated. We need an all-of-Canada effort to get ready.

The stakes are critical: Three-quarters of our exports head south to the United States. Trade with the United States represents almost a third of our GDP and it sustains close to one in five Canadian jobs.

In the coming days, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will formally advise Congress of NAFTA renegotiations, setting in play a 90-day consideration by House and Senate committees. By the latter part of the year, Mr. Ross expects that we will be into “real” negotiations that he predicts will take at least a year.

Following his White House meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month, President Donald Trump described the Canada-U.S. relationship as just needing some “tweaking.” But, as Mr. Ross told Bloomberg this week, “there is a lot of meat to be dealt with,” including addressing the digital economy and revising the rules of origin.

After meeting recently with her Mexican counterparts in Toronto , Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that Canada’s preference is for trilateral negotiations. Mr. Trump prefers bilateral deals but Secretary Ross says he is “open-minded” about the form. Regardless, Canada and Mexico need to stay close to avoid the divide-and-conquer techniques that are integral to Mr. Trump’s “art of the deal.”

Getting Canada’s act together means real collaboration between the federal and provincial governments and close, continuing consultations with business, labour and civic society. We need consensus on two questions:

  • What do we want from the negotiations?
  • How do we get there?

The more creative we can be, the better. The expertise of sectoral advisory groups proved vital to the successful negotiation of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement (1988) and NAFTA (1993-4). They should be resurrected and made permanent. We need to co-opt the best brains in our research community to rapidly crunch data and provide timely analysis for our negotiators.

The Canadian strategy going into the talks must be bold. A new agreement should be broad and comprehensive, providing for the free flow of people, goods and services with enforceable standards for labour and the environment. Let’s take the best from the stillborn (at least for now) Trans-Pacific Partnership. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to our mutually beneficial energy relationship in putting forward a Canadian policy that is both pragmatic and progressive.

Most of the American “asks” are readily identifiable. As Mr. Ross told Congress during his confirmation hearings, the United States wants to reduce its trade deficits and to restore manufacturing through increasing the “Made in America” content for rules of origin.

The United States Trade Representative annual National Trade Estimates report lists United States’ complaints with Canada. These include extending the intellectual property protection for pharmaceuticals; ending supply management for dairy and poultry; and inspecting for counterfeits, especially for Chinese goods shipped to U.S. destinations through Canadian ports like Vancouver or Prince Rupert.

The easiest solution on rules of origin would be to move to a customs union, but the Americans are unlikely to buy in unless it is a strictly Canada-U..S agreement. Otherwise we need to redefine rules of origin as “Made in North America.” American manufacturers should be our allies, especially those in the automotive industry, where supply-chain integration dates from the 1965 Canada-U.S. Auto Pact.

We should agree to counterfeit inspection in return for extended pre-clearance of goods and easier business travel access. Reforming supply management is long overdue, but let’s get something in return, such as access to U.S. shipbuilding contracts.

Where they were once divided, today Canada’s premiers are of like mind on the value of trade, leading missions across our oceans. Now they need to focus on our biggest customer, especially through cultivating their governor counterparts in regional meetings and through visits to their states. Premier Rachel Notley sets the bar through consistent visits to the US capitol and other US cities.

Access to procurement is vital, especially at the state and provincial government level and, for the premiers, this should be job one. Working with governors, they did a procurement reciprocity deal around the Obama infrastructure investments in 2010. Now we need to make it permanent.

The Americans like us, indeed, more than we like them. The Trudeau government has created good working relationships within the Trump administration. But complacency is a mistake. Mr. Trump’s priority is “making America great again.” The business of America is business. Canada needs to be ready.

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