MONTREAL (Reuters): US President Donald Trump’s trade chief rejected Canadian proposals for unblocking NAFTA modernization talks on Monday but pledged to seek “breakthroughs” by late February, easing concerns that Washington would soon withdraw from the trilateral pact.
Trump, who described the North American Free Trade Agreement as a disaster that has drained manufacturing jobs to Mexico, has frequently threatened to abandon it unless it can be renegotiated to bring back jobs to the United States.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said after a sixth round of NAFTA negotiations in Montreal that Trump’s views on the pact are unchanged, and cautioned that talks are still moving too slowly on US priorities.
“We finally began to discuss the core issues, so this round was a step forward,” Lighthizer said. “But we are progressing very slowly. We owe it to our citizens, who are operating in a state of uncertainty, to move much faster.” Lighthizer said he would work “very hard” toward “major breakthroughs” between now and the start of a nine-day stretch of talks in Mexico City scheduled for Feb. 26.
He said he has not considered pausing the talks for Mexico’s presidential election due to launch on April 1, and progress over the next month would determine whether a deal would be “on a fairly short track or on a longer track.” He added that Trump would ask Congress to renew the administration’s “fast track” trade negotiating authority, which expires at the end of June.
Lighthizer’s Mexican and Canadian counterparts struck a more optimistic tone, saying that substantial progress was made in Montreal, with completion of a NAFTA chapter on anti-corruption.
Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said enough progress was made for him to predict that chapters on telecoms and digital trade would be completed in Mexico City.
“For the next round, we will still have substantial challenges to overcome. Yet the progress made so far puts us on the right track to create landing zones to conclude the negotiation soon,” Guajardo said.
Officials are now openly speculating that the bid to salvage the $1.2 trillion free-trade pact will continue well beyond an end-March deadline set to avoid Mexican presidential elections.