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Canada surprised that Trump trade chief feels NAFTA deal is close

March 29, 2018  

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The Trump administration is sounding upbeat about the chances of reaching a NAFTA agreement in the near future. The Trudeau government is sounding much less so.

According to a Toronto Star story, top U.S. and Canadian officials offered markedly different assessments of the state of the negotiations on Wednesday.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade chief Robert Lighthizer, known for aggressive public criticism of Canada and Mexico, said on CNBC that he was optimistic that an agreement “in principle” is possible “in the next little bit” with some effort and compromise.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, said the U.S. has not yet made the compromises necessary. “Significant” gaps remain, he told the Star, and Canada is not certain what the U.S. means by an agreement “in principle.”

“An agreement in principle, to our understanding, means some sense of direction on the big issues, the important issues. We’ve not seen that from the U.S. so far. We’ve not seen any proposals in that regard,” Verheul told reporters in Ottawa.

“If we’re going to achieve that, we would fairly require some considerable flexibility in U.S. positions,” Verheul said.

Jerry Dias, president of Canada’s Unifor union, which represents autoworkers, was more blunt.

“I don’t know what Lighthizer is smoking, but he should stop it,” Dias said in an interview with the Star. Dias said the three countries might be able to complete negotiations on some smaller issues by the end of April, but he said they remain “so far apart” on bigger issues.

Verheul also played down talk of a breakthrough on the auto manufacturing issue that has been a primary source of tension.

Lighthizer said last week that the countries were “starting to converge” on the issue. Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton, said the talks had taken a turn for the positive when the U.S. introduced a new auto proposal that would replace a previous proposal fiercely opposed by Canada and Mexico.

Verheul said the auto file was still not close to a resolution.

“We welcome that signal, but… we are still quite a distance away from any kind of agreement on the approach to auto rules of origin,” he said.

(Toronto Star)