Trade ministers back away from NAFTA negotiating table

Trade ministers from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico won't meet face to face during the fifth round of NAFTA talks taking place in Mexico City. The politicians are backing away from the negotiating table, after holding meetings on the sideline of the APEC summit last week.

Top trade officials from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico won't meet during 5th round of talks

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, right, held a joint news conference after a NAFTA trilateral ministerial meeting in Washington last month. The trio won't attend talks this month in Mexico City. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The politicians overseeing the renegotiation of NAFTA won't be meeting face to face at the end of this round of talks, unlike the previous four rounds of discussions.

According to a news release, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Mexican Secretary of the Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal do not see the need to meet, since they held bilateral talks on the sidelines of the APEC summit last week in Vietnam. 

"Given the substantive discussions held between the ministers at APEC, the ministers agreed not to attend the fifth round so negotiators can continue to make important progress on key chapters advanced in Round 4," said a news release from Global Affairs Canada. 

"The chief negotiators from Mexico, the United States and Canada will be in constant communication with their respective ministers and will report on the progress reached in Round 5."

A source with direct knowledge of the talks told CBC News that the push for political leaders to take a step back from the negotiating table came from Lighthizer.

It is part of a recent shift in attitude from the U.S., which appears to be taking on a more traditional approach to the renegotiation process, according to the source. 

Attitude shift

Not only is the U.S. advocating for letting the professionals do the heavy lifting at the negotiating table, it also strongly supported spreading talks out over a longer timeline.

Still, the Americans have unapologetically put proposals on the table that both Canada and Mexico have said they will not support.

There are five so-called poison pills from the U.S., including demands for a sunset clause, changes to procurement rules that put Canada and Mexico at a disadvantage, increasing American content in the auto sector and dismantling Canada's protected dairy industry.

Freeland described those demands as "troubling" during a tense news conference, at the end of the fourth round of talks in October. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump as they meet about the NAFTA trade agreement in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., Oct. 11. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

And Donald Trump's public approach to NAFTA has not changed. 

He has repeatedly described the deal as bad for the U.S. and has mused about terminating the agreement.

Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver

Negotiators are expected to meet again in mid-December for another round of talks, which will not include political figures.

Delegations from Canada and Mexico will travel to Washington for what the source called an 'intersession' meeting.

Canada will hold the next full round of talks in 2018.

Organizers are looking to book a venue in either Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver for those discussions.

Ottawa was ruled out as a host city earlier this month. The Canadians had considered booking venues in the oilpatch, as a possible way to showcase Canada's energy industry.

However, it was decided that approach would not be feasible. 


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.