The House

Montreal NAFTA talks could signal beginning of the end

Montreal’s NAFTA talks could bring about the end of a golden age of free trade between Canada, Mexico and the United States, according to members of Canada’s advisory panel on the trade meetings.

Canadian advisors on trade negotiations fear Donald Trump is preparing to pull the plug

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland meets for a trilateral meeting with Mexico's Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, left, and Ambassador Robert E. Lighthizer, United States Trade Representative, during the final day of the third round of NAFTA negotiations. Talks are now entering round six. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Next week's round of NAFTA talks could signal the end of a golden age of free trade between Canada, Mexico and the United States, according to members of Canada's advisory panel on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Donald Trump's hot-and-cold attitude and controversial proposals by U.S. negotiators have stalled months of attempts to find a quick way through the renegotiations, and some members of the advisory panel fear what might come next.

"It's not if but when he (Trump) triggers the six month withdrawal," Rona Ambrose told The House.

"The longer we go with nothing accomplished the more we start to think that Trump's likely scenario is he wants to be able to say 'There's no outcome, we're not making any progress, we don't have partners that are working well with us, we're going to trigger the six-month withdrawal," the former interim leader of the Conservative party said.

Threats from the president to remove the United States from the trade deal have been a regular occurence, but his administration is still subject to the clause that requires half a year's notice before withdrawal.

U.S. 'not looking for an agreement' soon

The sixth round of talks kick off next week and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has been forced to think outside the box.

Last week, she said she'd be bringing some "creative" new proposals to the table in response to U.S. inflexibility.

But if Americans negotiators are unwilling to bend — even slightly — it could seal NAFTA's fate.

"It is clear the Americans are not looking for an agreement anytime soon," Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said.

"I think it's really critical that we brace ourselves that NAFTA will be subjected to major thinking from the president to give us the [six months] notice."

Both Yussuff and Ambrose said it will be obvious from the tone of the Montreal meetings how the United States intends to proceed with NAFTA.

"We haven't seen any concrete gains to date," Ambrose said.

And that's concerning to both of them.

'America first' could kill NAFTA

The fears, however, are directly contrary to Justin Trudeau's most recent comments on the talks.

Earlier this week, he said he remains optimistic that Canada, the United States and Mexico can strike a "win-win-win" deal that would benefit all three countries.

Officials from all three countries have acknowledged reaching a deal would benefit their respective economies — even notable Republican Karl Rove expressed that withdrawing from NAFTA would kill American jobs.

Yet, Ambrose worries the president and his cabinet are unfazed by the positive reports.

"The people that are right around him on trade… they're nationalists, they're America first and that's what Trump is."

Yussuff echoed her dismay.

"The president hears what he wants to hear and believes what he wants to believe."

The meetings in Montreal will run from Jan. 23 to Jan. 29.

We talk to two members of Canada's advisory council on NAFTA: former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and Canadian Labour Congress president, Hassan Yussuff.