Talks toward reworking the North American Free Trade Agreement are progressing well, even though the United States hasn’t made detailed proposals in some of the most divisive areas, Canada’s chief negotiator said.
Steve Verheul, speaking to reporters Sunday in Ottawa during the third round of talks, said the tone remains constructive and there’s no signal the United States will walk away, though he said several U.S. proposals have yet to be revealed.
“We’re making good solid progress,” Verheul said, declining to commit to meeting the December target for a deal. “The endgame is always the hardest part and impossible to predict.”
Verheul’s comments came after Jerry Dias, the head of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, said he doesn’t expect a deal by the end of the year and criticized U.S. negotiators. Dias, who represents thousands of autoworkers in Canada, isn’t in the closed-door negotiations but is among union leaders working closely with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he presses for NAFTA reforms on labour.
“There’s no progress, things are going very slow,” said Dias, head of Unifor, whose members include autoworkers. “There’s no meaningful discussions. It looks as if the tactics are, we’re the big player and we’re going to force the agenda, and if you don’t like it, too bad, so my guess is everybody just walks away.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has called NAFTA a “disaster” and blamed it for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. He’s seeking to substantially rewrite the deal, targeting the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico in particular.
AUTOS, DAIRY AND MORE
Verheul and Dias spoke on the second of five days during the third round of talks. Key subjects such as labour and rules of origin, which govern how much of a product must be made within NAFTA countries to benefit from the pact, are set for negotiation on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The United States hasn’t made detailed proposals on automotive rules of origin, dairy or the Chapter 19 dispute settlement, Verheul said. Overall rules of origin are being discussed “in depth,” he said. The countries have “a shot” at concluding some chapters during the third round, which runs until Wednesday, he said.
While Dias said the U.S. hasn’t presented detailed submissions, Canada’s Verheul said the U.S. has “put forward a number of proposals” in a majority of 28 working groups. A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer rejected Dias’s comments.
“The NAFTA negotiations are progressing at an unprecedented pace, with the United States tabling text in 27 chapters in the five weeks since negotiations began,” spokeswoman Emily Davis said in an email. “The United States remains committed to substantially changing NAFTA for an agreement that is fair for all Americans.”
Another Canadian labour group called on the U.S. team to treat Canada’s labour proposals more seriously, saying there are reports the United States isn’t relaying Canada’s proposals to its stakeholders.
“The Canadian government is not kidding around in terms of their labour proposals. This is strong stuff,” Christopher Monette, director of public affairs for the Teamsters Canada union, told reporters Sunday. “We think it needs to be taken more seriously by U.S. negotiators.”