Confusion abounds over plans to sign NAFTA's replacement on Friday

As the clock continues to count down to a Friday signing ceremony for the revised North American trade agreement, the Canadian government still has not confirmed its participation.

Dairy organizations fear that unapproved text may stay in deal set to be signed

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took part in a forum for the business women leaders taskforce on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina Thursday. His participation in a signing ceremony for the revised North American free trade agreement Friday is not yet confirmed. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As the clock continues to count down to a Friday signing ceremony for the revised North American trade agreement, the Canadian government still has not confirmed that it's actually taking part.

Mexico's chief trade negotiator, Kenneth Smith Ramos, said on Twitter Thursday morning that he was on his way to Buenos Aires, Argentina to participate in a signing ceremony at 9 a.m. tomorrow "in front of the leaders" of the three countries in the agreement.

No official news release has been issued to clarify the timing or the location of this signing ceremony, but Ramos's tweet appears to confirm what Larry Kudlow, Donald Trump's economic adviser, said on Tuesday — that "representatives" from the three NAFTA nations would be signing the deal on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Meeting with reporters to discuss another issue, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said today that it's "always the case" that trade negotiations leave some details to be finalized at the last minute.

"We are very hard at work doing that," she said, adding that the Canadian negotiators would be meeting their U.S. and Mexican counterparts Thursday afternoon.

(Freeland declined — as she has recently — to refer to the new trade pact by the name U.S. President Donald Trump has insisted on giving it: the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, or USMCA. Instead, she simply called it the "new NAFTA.")

Freeland said Canada's objective has always been to sign the deal on Friday and her government is "on track to hit that objective," but would not explicitly state that Canada's signature will be on the trade agreement by Saturday morning.

She also wouldn't say which issues are causing last-minute difficulties.

Two national dairy organizations wrote letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Thursday urging him not to sign the deal until discrepancies in the USMCA text have been resolved.

Officials assured posted text not final

What worries the dairy sector is an USMCA annex on agricultural trade. The dairy organizations say it "fundamentally undermines Canadian sovereignty" by granting the Americans "oversight into the administration of our Canadian dairy system." 

The text posted by the United States Trade Representative's office on Oct.1 specifies that Canada must notify the U.S. before it makes any changes to its tariff classifications, and give the U.S. the opportunity to review the change and request more information — a condition which may be commercially sensitive for the sector.

"At a meeting with your key officials following the announcement of the agreement and publication of the U.S. text, Dairy Farmers of Canada was told that the issue of U.S. oversight had not been agreed to by Canada – and would not be part of the final agreement," says the letter signed by DFC President Pierre Lampron and other members of its national board.

"We remain concerned that we have not yet seen a final text with this portion excluded."

"We too met with officials last month and were told that Canada had not agreed to U.S. oversight, and, as such, it would not be included in the final agreement," reads the letter from Mathieu Frigon, the president and CEO of the Dairy Processors Association of Canada. "Reports that Canada is preparing to sign the USMCA later this week is extremely concerning to us."

"Any measures that would provide another country with a say on how Canada governs its domestic dairy system must not be allowed," the letter goes on to state, adding this could "stall innovation, hamper decision making and seriously weaken the competitiveness of Canada's dairy sector at home and abroad."

'Losing best chance' to lift steel tariffs

Katie Ward, the president of the National Farmers Union, also chimed in with a letter on behalf of her organization.

"The fact that the negotiated final text either does not exist or has not been made public is reason enough to cancel the planned signing ceremony," she wrote.

Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the NDP's House leader, demanded in the House of Commons today that the dairy oversight clause be removed before Canada signs the USMCA.

"This clause will have devastating and crippling consequences on our industry here in Canada," she said.

"We made sure that the American attempts to destroy our supply management system did not succeed," Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lawrence MacAulay replied. "We understand that they had some problems and we're going to make sure that they're fully and fairly supported."

NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey added that with U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs still in place, signing now would amount to "losing our best chance to eliminate them. The reasons for not signing this deal are stacking up."

As of Thursday afternoon, the signing ceremony did not appear on the itinerary released by the Prime Minister's Office, although that is always subject to change.


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