Tip 1 of Freeland's Art of the Deal: Expect things to get messy

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland expects the NAFTA negotiations set to begin Wednesday will ultimately have a happy ending, but getting there could be a little tense.

'I am confident that this is a story with a happy ending,' minister says as NAFTA talks to begin Wednesday

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland appears before the Commons trade committee to discuss NAFTA negotiations set to begin this week in Washington. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Chrystia Freeland declared herself to be "deeply optimistic" on Monday, despite the fact she's about to enter into trade negotiations with Donald Trump, the man credited with writing the book on dealmaking.

"I am confident that this is a story with a happy ending," the foreign affairs minister told an audience at the University of Ottawa, with the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement set to begin this week in Washington, D.C.

But don't expect a relaxing read. 

"As I am sure Canadians appreciate, the path to getting there could well include some moments of excitement," Freeland said, "excitement" used here as a euphemism for conflict.

The Liberals wish they could have avoided being dragged into this rewrite of NAFTA, especially with the likes of Donald Trump on the other side of the table (figuratively if not literally).

But if Freeland can pull this off to even the tepid satisfaction of the Canadian public, she could add to her own literary record with a new take on Trump's The Art of the Deal.

"These negotiations are a deeply serious and profoundly consequential moment for all of us," she said.

Those consequences no doubt include her own government's short-term standing and long-term legacy.

Trump's dealmaking and tweeting

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals are already losing out on the time and energy that could have been devoted to other priorities and projects.

On Monday, Freeland delivered a speech, took questions from a House of Commons committee and spoke with reporters. On Tuesday, she'll be in Washington to dine with her American and Mexican counterparts. In her last consultations before meetings get underway, she met with labour leaders in Toronto Tuesday morning.

Chrystia Freeland holds a meeting in Toronto with union leaders who are pushing for stronger labour standards in the new North American Free Trade Agreement. This is Freeland's last pre-negotiation consultation before heading to Washington for the first round of NAFTA talks. 2:21

But if Freeland is feeling good about these negotiations, it could be because President Trump has yet to display the canny skills of an expert negotiator. Mexico is not paying for his border wall. Obamacare has been neither repealed nor replaced. China has not exactly been cowed into submission on any number of fronts. 

Still, Trump has shown a distinct willingness to act outside the normal standards of presidential behaviour. Anyone dealing with him must live with the limitless possibilities of what he might tweet next.

Trump's appeal is also, at its most basic, a nationalist one, that questions the existing arrangements of free trade.

Donald Trump holds up a copy of his 1987 book, 'Trump: The Art of the Deal' during a campaign stop at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., back on April 19, 2015. (Associated Press)

And even if Trump were nowhere near these negotiations, the matter could be still be fraught.

For as long as there has been a Canada, this country's economic relationship with the U.S. has been a concern. In 1911, outrage at reciprocity drove Wilfrid Laurier from office. Seventy-seven years later, the first free-trade agreement with the United States dominated one of the most dramatic federal elections in Canadian history.

NAFTA might not be a source of passionate disagreement in Canada at this point, but, as Freeland said Monday, international agreements have become a convenient target of scorn globally amid rising inequality and industrial change. Indeed, critics on the left have been joined by right-wing populists.

Automation and other technological advances are primarily responsible for job losses in sectors like manufacturing, Freeland said, but the benefits of trade must still be "fairly and broadly shared."

From the outset of this new engagement on NAFTA, the New Democrats seem keen to attack any concessions, while the Conservatives seem eager to question the government's competence.

There will, if nothing else, be extended fretting about milk and cheese, with the American administration raising concerns about Canada's supply management system. And industry groups and critics will denounce every real concession or perceived loss.

What the Liberals want

The Liberals have been busy ahead of the negotiations: establishing a special unit in the Prime Minister's Office, consulting the public, talking to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, dispatching ministers to state capitals and border towns, and assembling a multi-partisan advisory council that includes the previous leader of the Opposition, Rona Ambrose.

In addition to any practical gains that might result, such efforts could insulate the government from suggestions it failed to take this matter seriously.

Such actions at least suggest a government that fears the consequences of this going badly.

Now, on the eve of formal talks, the Liberals say they will seek a "progressive" deal, one that focuses not only on labour safeguards, gender equality and Indigenous interests, but also environmental concerns like climate change.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland outlines Canada's priorities for NAFTA during a speech at the University of Ottawa on Monday, ahead of talks beginning later this week. 2:25

Such values will likely sound good to Liberal voters, and good intentions might be worth something, but it could also prove a lot to ask of a trade deal involving Donald Trump.​

When Freeland later appeared before the international trade committee on Monday, the NDP's Tracey Ramsey wondered aloud whether the American administration could be convinced to even include the words "climate change" in an official document.

Then again, the first chapter of The Art of the Deal is entitled "think big."

Like renovating your house

Beyond her best hopes, a section of Freeland's speech Monday was devoted to warning Canadians to expect unpleasantness.

Rewriting an existing agreement, she ventured, is like "renovating your house, while you're still living in it."

"The end result ... is terrific," she said. "But getting there can be a little messy and uncomfortable. And there are going to be moments, when walls are opened up, and pipes and wiring get exposed, that can get a little unsettling."

Would it be churlish to note here that Donald J. Trump's history with contractors is a bit spotty?

Maybe it won't even be that bad. Maybe Trump's demands — or ego — will be easily satisfied. Maybe the Republicans in Congress will be willing to go along with what Canada has to offer. Maybe this will all be wrapped up by January.

But the story so far suggests planning to renegotiate NAFTA means planning for the possibility of messiness.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.


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