President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in the East Room at the White House, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

NAFTA: Why the U.S. wants a deal within weeks

It’s the U.S. argument that political events beyond the spring could make it harder to finish a deal and get final ratification votes

The United States is suddenly proposing a sprint to the finish toward a new NAFTA deal within about four to six weeks — a jet-fuel pace that aims to soar past political obstacles and procedural hurdles.

Is it doable?

Count veterans of NAFTA 1.0 among the skeptics. In interviews Tuesday, the top Canadian negotiator in the original NAFTA and the top American trade official who completed the pact under Bill Clinton expressed their doubts.

”I don’t think so,” said John Weekes, Canada’s chief negotiator in the original deal.

”These are complex things… These aren’t the sort of things you can just decide bang, bang… (It) has to be a good agreement that makes sense for all three countries — and not taking short cuts, and not agreeing to a bad deal.”

The stated reason for the hurry now is simple: It’s the U.S. argument that political events beyond the spring could make it harder to finish a deal and get final ratification votes. In a few months, the Trump administration could face a more hostile Congress, and a more combative Mexican president.

Related: PM and Trump talk: U.S. in hurry for NAFTA deal, using tariff threat as leverage

The U.S. argues that there are just two months left to get a deal this year — otherwise procedural rules, including more than six months required to ratify an agreement in the U.S. Congress, will make a final vote impossible before 2019.

A more realistic timetable in Weekes’s mind would be a deal by December. That’s similar to the estimate offered by his former American counterpart Mickey Kantor — Clinton’s first U.S. trade czar foresees at least six months more of negotiating.

”It’s going to take time,” Kantor said. ”Trade agreements don’t end before their time… There are a number of issues on the table — they have to be resolved.”

Compare the current and past timetables.

The original NAFTA took 14 months to negotiate. Lawyers then combed the text for errors, Clinton was elected and insisted on new labour and environmental side-deals, and then there were ratification votes — in the end, it took about 30 months.

Related: Trump tweets that steel, aluminum tariffs stay unless there’s a new NAFTA deal

The current negotiations are into their seventh month. Of the roughly 30 chapters to complete, six are done so far. That’s not fast enough, current U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer said at the close of a round in Mexico City.

”Now our time is running very short,” said Lighthizer, who described the four-to-six-week horizon in a chat later with American media.

But the NAFTA veterans suspect something else is afoot.

They believe the Trump administration is trying to squeeze the neighbours: ”I think they’re trying to pressure the Canadians and the Mexicans into a quick deal,” Kantor said.

“I believe that Lighthizer thinks, and what President Trump thinks — if he understands this, which is debatable — is that the steel and aluminum tariff pressure will cause Canada and Mexico to fold.”

That theory was bolstered this week when the threat of tariffs was dangled over the negotiating table. Lighthizer suggested that if Canada and Mexico sign a quick NAFTA deal, that could void any tariffs before they take effect.

Weekes offers two bits of advice to the Canadians.

The first is to nod politely, agree to the sped-up timetable — and then just keep doing whatever they need to do to get the best possible deal: “I would be inclined not to (admit my doubts about the timetable)… I’d say, ‘We’re prepared to proceed very, very fast… Speed — we’re prepared to go very, very quickly.’”

His second suggestion is to show a counter-threat on the steel and aluminum tariffs.

Weekes suggests mapping out a longer-than-necessary list of products, potential retaliatory targets, where tariffs would create maximum political damage for American politicians, but the least economic damage.

He would make that preliminary list public, in the hope that it scares a few people in Washington. He would hope never to have to use it. And he would ignore the Economics 101 lectures about tariffs being mutually destructive.

“I think we need to do something to make sure we don’t look like we’re pushovers,” Weekes said.

“If we roll over, we’re basically saying, ‘Come after us anytime. Be my guest.’”

It’s unclear whether Trump’s tariffs will ever actually hit the neighbours.

On the one hand, a new poll says they’re unpopular — just 28 per cent of Americans want a trade war and 31 per cent want tariffs, according to a Quinnipiac survey. Already the administration says the penalties might never come into effect for Canada and Mexico if there’s a new NAFTA.

The idea of tariffs on Canada is even becoming a political liability for the administration: for those Americans bashing the steel and aluminum plan, the notion of a trade war against Canada has actually become a favourite talking point.

On the other hand, the most powerful pro-trade advocate in the White House is quitting. News late Tuesday of the departure of former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn stoked suspicions he’d lost in a tug-of-war over tariffs.

President Donald Trump promises more details in a formal announcement within about a week, coinciding with a big congressional election March 13 in the steel-producing state of Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, the president indicated he would be delicate in imposing tariffs: “We’ll do it in a very loving way,” he said, standing next to the prime minister of Sweden.

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Saanich Police speed reader board stolen

Traffic safety device taken from the 4700 block of Interurban Road

New leader aims to grow Oak Bay Volunteer Services

About 200 volunteers offer about 500 residents with support services

Partnerships are key for Peninsula youth clinic

The clinic has a new home and some funding for a year, but there is more to do

Gonzales Hill home project comes under scrutiny Thursday

Proponents of controversial development to argue their case at board of variance meeting

Teenager target of indecent exposure at Willows Beach in Oak Bay

Suspect exposed his genitals to a teenage girl Saturday

Viewer Photos: First day of Spring around British Columbia

Our loyal viewers sent us some of their favourite Spring photos from all corners of the province

Human remains found in Campbell River in February under investigation as a homicide

In mid-February, RCMP announced that human remains had been located in a… Continue reading

Five Canadian kids charged with making school threats

Police say online threats are on the rise

Not even Ellen DeGeneres can get Virtue, Moir to say they’re more than friends

Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” Tuesday

Victoria partners on ‘Stigma-Free Zone’ event tonight

Free event will see discussions around mental illness and reducing existing stigma in the community

RCMP warn public to stop pouring gas on fires after three incidents

Police responded to three recent incidents that sent seven people to hospital

BCHL Today: Surrey Eagles in the driver’s seat and Ethan Martini takes a seat

BCHL Today is a (near) daily look at what’s going on around the league and the junior A world.

Courtenay man identified as Vancouver Island’s newest multi-millionaire

Geoffrey Bennett won the March 17 BC/49 jackpot

Most Read