NAFTA talks: Trump administration announces Aug. 16 start date in D.C.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has announced that the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin with a first round of talks Aug. 16-20 in Washington. Additional rounds are expected to follow in Canada and Mexico.

1st round of negotiations will be followed by additional talks in Mexico, Canada

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of NAFTA unless his team can negotiate a better deal for America. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced Wednesday that the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin with a first round of talks Aug. 16-20 in Washington.

Aug. 16 is the earliest day the Trump administration can come to the table with Canada and Mexico to present opening offers. A 90-day consultation period was required first, according to U.S. legislation. That process started in May. 

Additional negotiating rounds are expected to follow in Canada and Mexico throughout the fall.

Congress is currently giving its feedback to negotiating objectives published by Lighthizer's office Monday, as also required by law.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's spokesperson Adam Austen wrote Wednesday that Canada looks forward to "modernizing NAFTA into a progressive trade agreement," and the government continues to invite Canadians to share their ideas and priorities.

Some senior voices in the Trump administration have expressed a desire to act quickly. By summer 2018, Mexico will be in a presidential election campaign, and later that fall, the U.S. has midterm elections for Congress. There's a fear that talks could bog down or stall if electoral politics take over.

Lighthizer told the U.S. Senate's finance committee last month that "we're going to have a very short time frame, and we're going to compact it as much as we possibly can."

But "there is no deadline," he said. "My hope is that we get it done by the end of the year, but there are a lot of people who think that's completely unrealistic."

What's on the table?

How long negotiations take may depend on how much of the deal the U.S. wants to rewrite. Negotiators won't know exactly what's on the agenda until the opening positions are exchanged next month.

"The other NAFTA parties — Canada and Mexico … their position has been: the U.S. wanted to reopen this and modernize it. We're just coming along," international trade lawyer Dan Ujczo told CBC News last week. "So I think in some ways the U.S. is going to set the agenda."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government, led by ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton (left of Trudeau) and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (right of Trudeau), is leading a lobbying and outreach campaign to ensure U.S. politicians and officials understand the importance of Canadian trade. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Monday's release of the U.S. negotiating objectives featured few surprises. The majority of the items in the 18-page summary published for Congress were consistent with priorities in the 2015 trade promotion authority legislation that gives the USTR its Congressional authority to negotiate trade deals.

Several sections line up with what the U.S. negotiated with Canada and Mexico in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, a 12-country Pacific Rim trade pact that U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order to pull out of shortly after taking office last fall.

But a few items — particularly an American desire to eliminate the NAFTA chapter that allows countries to appeal countervailing and anti-dumping duties, such as the American levies recently placed on Canadian softwood lumber — will lead to tough bargaining.

Canada's official consultation process seeking feedback on NAFTA ended Tuesday, but an online portal to collect Canadians' views remains open.

Cracking the united front

While the U.S. consultations required by Congress have been largely public, Canada's preparations have been criticized for being too private.

Opposition MPs sent a letter Tuesday requesting an emergency meeting of the Commons international trade committee this summer to discuss Canada's negotiating objectives in advance, with Freeland, International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Finance Minister Bill Morneau as witnesses.

Asked Wednesday if his government would release its NAFTA negotiating positions, Trudeau said he would talk to the opposition parties but was disappointed at their decision to publicly challenge him on the issue.

"I believe that the relationship with the United States needs to go beyond partisanship, and I have been pleased that up until recently, anyway, we have been working very, very collaboratively," Trudeau said from Laval, Que.

"The strength of our negotiations with the United States has been more important than partisanship and still is for me, and that's why we are more than happy to sit down with opposition parties and discuss the approach we are going to take on renegotiating NAFTA in the best interests of all Canadians."

Conflicting goals

"We have yet to see meaningful, transparent and open discourse with the Canadian public on this government's trading priorities and objectives regarding NAFTA," Ken Neumann from the United Steelworkers union said in a release.

"We call on the government to clearly detail the specific components, principles and provisions which make up what it has called its 'progressive trade agenda,'" he said. 

The steelworkers, who did not support the TPP and want controversial investor-state dispute settlement provisions (NAFTA's Chapter 11) removed from NAFTA, are one of several groups publicizing their submissions to Canada's consultation process.

President Donald Trump hosted a 'Made in America,' product showcase at the White House on the same day his administration's NAFTA renegotiation objectives were released on Monday. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Another submission shared with CBC News from the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters called for things like updated customs procedures, updates to the list of professionals permitted to move freely between NAFTA countries and an elimination of sub-national government procurement restrictions.

The U.S. objectives published Monday said American state and local governments should be able to restrict Canadian or Mexican companies from bidding on their contracts — another example of where the talks appear set for tough bargaining.

Chief negotiator announced

John Melle will be the Trump administration's chief negotiator. He is currently the assistant trade representative responsible for U.S. trade policy in the Western Hemisphere.

Steve Verheul, the chief negotiator for Canada's recent trade deal with the European Union, will lead Canada's negotiating team.

Kirsten Hillman, Canada's senior official on the softwood lumber file as well as the lead negotiator for the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that included the United States and Mexico, is relocating to Washington to become Ambassador David MacNaughton's deputy at the Canadian Embassy in D.C. She also is expected to play a leadership role.

With files from Peter Zimonjic and The Canadian Press