Canada shouldn't fear NAFTA discussions, U.S. Chamber of Commerce head says

The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told an Ottawa business audience on Monday that the demise of NAFTA would be bad news for all three countries in terms of jobs, which is why he's confident that an even stronger trade agreement is the most likely outcome of negotiations.

Free trade agreement too valuable to tear up, Tom Donohue says

U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue says 14 million American jobs depend on the NAFTA agreement, which is why the U.S. is unlikely to tear it up. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told an Ottawa business audience today that the demise of the North American Free Trade Agreement would be bad news for Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in terms of jobs, which is why he's confident that an even stronger trade agreement is the most likely outcome.

Tom Donohue told the Economic Club of Canada that "the jobs of 14 million Americans depend on the agreement." He said it was likely politicians on all sides will find a way to strengthen the business ties of North America even as some of the details get renegotiated.

"Let me say right up front that withdrawing from NAFTA would be devastating for the workers, businesses and economies of our countries," Donohue said.

"We do $670 billion in bilateral goods and services trade annually," Donohue said of trade between the U.S. and Canada. "Nearly $2 billion in trade crosses our shared border every day."

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to abandon NAFTA if it can't be renegotiated to his satisfaction.

Much of the new president's vitriol regarding trade has been targeted at Mexico, which he accuses of flooding the U.S. market with its goods, at the expense of American workers.

But Donohue assured his Canadian audience that U.S. officials are well aware of the value in the free flow of goods. "This is hardly the first time in the U.S. that we've had a knock-down, drag-out domestic fight over trade," he said.

"The truth is that we go through some version of this argument every time we negotiate a major deal."

He said Canadian business leaders have nothing to fear from the rhetoric coming out of America at the moment, and should instead take the opportunity to discuss trade issues to build an even better and stronger pact moving forward.

Visa changes

"Do no harm," will and should be the first priority in any trade discussions, he said. But he singled out a number of areas with mutual room for improvement.

E-commerce and the digital economy didn't exist when NAFTA was created 23 years ago, so those are two areas that he suspects all sides can find common ground on which to build a better foundation for the $1.3 trillion worth of trilateral trade by the three countries every year.

He also singled out the need to "modernize our visa arrangements" so that skilled workers are able to pass freely and frequently to the areas in which they are most needed.

"No matter what challenges or changes we face, our nations must always come together in a spirit of good will, common cause, and enduring friendship," Donohue said.

But "on trade, it's understandable that our neighbours might have questions about what's in store," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press