First Round of Talks in Jam-Packed NAFTA Schedule Concludes

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The first round of talks on the topic of modernizing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) concluded Sunday in Washington D.C.

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United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer last week said the U.S. is not looking for minor changes to the expansive, 23-year-old trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. The U.S. wants big changes, changes to help it chip away at its trade deficit with its two NAFTA partners.

Beginning Aug. 16, Lighthizer met with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Secretary of the Economy Ildefonso Guajardo to hash out possible changes to the agreement, viewed as largely a success by corporations but panned by labor interests in the U.S., who point to the outflow of jobs.

According to a joint statement on the Office of the United States Trade Representative website, negotiators will not get much of a breather — the next round of talks is scheduled for Sept. 1-5 in Mexico.

“The scope and volume of proposals during the first round of the negotiation reflects a commitment from all three countries to an ambitious outcome and reaffirms the importance of updating the rules governing the world’s largest free trade area,” the statement says.

The schedule does not hit the brakes there, either, as another round of talks is scheduled for late September in Canada, another round in the the U.S. in October, and additional rounds planned throughout the remainder of the year, the joint statement says.

The talks are accelerated partially because the parties want to avoid the discussions brushing up against 2018 elections (midterms in the U.S. and the presidential election in Mexico). As Reuters notes, the current poll favorite in next year’s Mexican presidential race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been critical of President Donald Trump and his trade objectives.

After practically immediately pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January, President Trump nearly pulled the U.S. out of NAFTA in April, until calls from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto convinced him to hold off.

Some see the pace of the NAFTA negotiation schedule as unrealistic.

John Masswohl, director of government relations at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, told Reuters that it’s a matter of substance versus speed.

“It’s hard to imagine how they can do something very substantive and do it very quickly,” he said. “It’s almost as if you can have one or the other. You can have it quick, or you can have it meaningful.”

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Given the large-scale changes the U.S. negotiators want to see, it remains to be seen whether such a schedule can accommodate their goals.

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