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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