Freeland visits Washington for pre-Thanksgiving push to resolve NAFTA differences

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said today that Canadian officials — herself included — are prepared to do whatever they can to ensure Congress ratifies the revised North American trade agreement.

Democrats demanding more from Mexico before USMCA proceeds

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, is welcomed by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer as she arrives at the U.S. Trade Representative's office on Wednesday for talks on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement on trade in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said today that Canadian officials — herself included — are prepared to do whatever they can to ensure Congress ratifies the revised North American trade agreement.

Freeland was in Washington D.C. this evening to meet with her American and Mexican counterparts — a pre-U.S. Thanksgiving push to make enough changes to the NAFTA replacement to satisfy congressional Democrats.

"Canada has done its job in negotiating the agreement," Freeland told reporters in Washington after the meeting. "Having said that, we very much believe that getting this agreement ratified in all three countries will be good for all three countries.

"We respect that the U.S. has its own domestic ratification process, and that is work they have to do inside the U.S. Where we can be a supportive partner we are very happy to do that. And that's why we're here."

A working group of Democrats has been wrangling with the Trump administration for months over aspects of the deal —particularly its new higher labour standards and whether they are enforceable, a critical source of concern for the American labour movement. 

Without changes, Democrats have been unwilling to proceed with introducing and eventually voting on an implementation bill for the renamed United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA, as the Americans call it).

A senior Canadian government source with direct knowledge of the talks told CBC News that the moment was now right for Freeland to join her counterparts in person, since there's a high possibility of real movement on the deal. She had been speaking to Lighthizer regularly this week by telephone.

Mexican and Canadian officials were brought in Wednesday morning to see if the proposed compromises would be acceptable to them. Canada was represented by its chief NAFTA negotiator, Steve Verheul, and the acting ambassador to Washington, Kirsten Hillman.

Freeland, who retained political responsibility for the negotiations in last week's cabinet shuffle, would not offer details of today's discussions or say how long the ratification process might take, adding that Ottawa is sticking to its practice of not conducting negotiations in public. 

"These negotiations always take as long as they take. Today, from the Canadian perspective, was a good meeting. Good work is being done," she said shortly before leaving to fly back to Canada.

'Progress across the board'

The American Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow had been suggested as a deadline for concluding negotiations between the Democrats and Lighthizer.

With multiple stages remaining in the U.S. ratification process and only a few weeks left on the Congressional calendar, the trade deal risks being overtaken on Washington's agenda by both the impeachment battle and the upcoming presidential primary season.

"There's progress across the board," said Jesus Seade, Mexico's deputy foreign minister, on his way out of the talks during a noon break today. "A range of issues have been discussed ... we are looking at them. They have very creative ideas to find satisfaction to the issues."

At midday, Seade said that he was on his way to review and react to some new documents that he had received from Lighthizer, and might need to discuss some further adjustments, but "every single issue that has made me lose my sleep is off the table ... We still have some way to go but we are going well."

Labour leaders in the U.S. and Canada are critical of the original NAFTA because of jobs lost in their respective countries once companies no longer faced tariffs when shipping products from Mexico — a market with lower average wages and weaker unions (where they exist). Without strong enforcement measures, the minimum wage provisions and higher labour standards in the revised NAFTA could be meaningless.

One proposal from the Democrats called for more inspections at Mexico facilities to ensure they're in compliance with the higher standards. Mexican officials initially objected to the suggestion that outside inspectors would be required to enforce the new NAFTA in their jurisdiction.

Jesus Seade, Mexico's deputy foreign minister: "When we come to an agreement, it certainly will be a huge improvement on the originally signed agreement." (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress and a member of the Trudeau government's NAFTA advisory council, said there are precedents in other treaties for international inspectors.

"For the labour movement, one of the biggest problems is [the Mexicans] have not lived up to their current commitments [under the original NAFTA]," he said. "It's hard for Democrats to take something to Congress without ensuring that what they are proposing will give some assurances to American workers."

Democrats have been under pressure from the labour movement to deliver some results, so they can claim to have improved the agreement in an election year.

"The Mexicans will have to make a quick decision," Yussuff said. "Everybody's aware that 2020 is coming up very shortly. The American election cycle will take precedent over anything in the United States and if you don't get this off agenda soon, there's a real worry that this agreement could languish [in Congress] for quite some time yet."

Seade declined to comment on the specific proposals Democrats suggested publicly in the lead-up to these talks. Referring to the process that Lighthizer and the Democrats are engaged in, however, he said that "when we come to an agreement, it certainly will be a huge improvement on the originally signed agreement."

Financial help coming from Canada?

Mexico has been trying to convince Democrats that it can be trusted to implement and enforce the higher labour standards the deal includes.

"Enforcement is a commitment of [Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador]. The [Mexican enforcement] budget is pretty much twice what we had assessed was necessary," Seade said, referring to recent financial commitments meant to assuage Democrats' concerns.

Last summer, Canada and Mexico struck a joint working group to offer Canadian expertise as the Mexicans implement new collective bargaining standards for workers at thousands of affected workplaces. Representatives met again in September.

"I think we have capacity to help them," Yussuff said, adding that the Mexicans might need funding in addition to advice.

"Trade is supposed to raise all boats," he said. "The last thing we want is for Canadian workers to feel that they're losing their jobs to Mexico because their standards aren't the same as in Canada."

The Canadian government source who spoke to CBC News said Canada also could be expected to offer financial assistance to Mexico as part of this process.

Seade told reporters in Spanish that he plans to travel to Ottawa and meet with Freeland on Friday.

"Do you think you'll get a deal by Christmas?" a reporter asked Seade as he walked away.

"Which Christmas?" he joked. "I hope so."

Anticipation for trade deal high as ministers gather in Washington

2 years ago
Trade experts Maryscott Greenwood and Meredith Lilly weigh in on the latest on USMCA talks taking place in Washington. 8:43

With files from Katie Simpson


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