Jesus Seade Kuri, the chief trade negotiator in the government of incoming Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, said he believes a NAFTA deal can still be reached – and that it is of critical importance to the incoming Mexican administration that Canada be part of any new pact – but he acknowledged that the atmosphere around the talks was fraught on Friday.
“I’m anxious, hungry, distressed, optimistic – all at the same time. You name any emotion and I probably have it,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington.
“Mexico as a whole has been categorical that we mean this to be trilateral, it’s very important to us,” he said, speaking for both the current government of Enrique Pena Nieto and the incoming administration, which joined the talks after Mr. Lopez Obrador won a sweeping presidential victory on July 1.
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In fact, Mr. Seade added, the incoming administration places even greater importance on having Canada be part of any deal than the Pena Nieto government did. “For us, it’s another notch or two higher, the importance we attach … we want Canada, for a lot of reasons including political, because of our views on certain social issues.”
Also, the Lopez Obrador administration wants a relationship with the United States that mirrors Canada’s. “We are very keen on having a relationship of equals, a good relationship but not a submissive relationship, and Canada is a natural partner, a brother or sister or ally, in this."
However, he indicated that Mexico will proceed with its deal with the United States regardless of the outcome of talks with Canada. “Whether we will have Canada is beyond our control. … We’ll be sorry to lose Canada."
Mr. Seade rejected the idea that Mexico sold out or undermined Canada’s negotiating position with the bilateral deal his country struck with the United States on Aug. 27, in which Mexico made concessions on key issues such as dispute settlement, investor protection and rules of origin. “I really think the word ‘betrayal’ is an overstatement – it’s an emotion – I think it’s too strong.”
Mexico has always insisted that Canada must be part of the deal, he said. “We always said that in every meeting, in every situation." But the majority of the most complex issues in the renegotiations concerned relations between the United States and Mexico, so it was “natural” that the two countries would work those out together. For issues that were trilateral in nature, Mexico’s position was that they must be finalized with Canada’s involvement, he added.
However, he believes Canada – both its negotiating team and its citizenry – may have drawn the wrong conclusion from statements made by the current Mexican government’s negotiators.
“The statements made on Monday when the bilateral understanding was reached were, ‘Well, we are happy to have an agreement, we hope it will be trilateral, but if it’s bilateral, well, tough.’ That’s not the message. We want Canada, but under the pressure of the moment the language was not thoroughly scrutinized by the people speaking for the current government.” He said his administration had “complained” about the phrasing to the outgoing team.
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But, he added, the bilateral deal is not against Mexico’s best interest, as many analysts here argued this past week. “We were expecting NAFTA 2.0 to be more like NAFTA 0.5, but this is NAFTA 1.1 – it’s 10 per cent better than the original deal.”
Mr. Seade played down the impact of a Toronto Star report on Friday morning that U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters in off-the record comments, subsequently leaked to the Star, that he would make no concessions to Canada.
Mr. Seade called the report “troublesome,” but not necessarily indicative of the entire U.S. negotiating position.
“We respect Mr. Trump hugely – he’s the President – but he says things that should not be read as final statements,” he said. “Let’s be hopeful that it can be fixed.”
Mr. Seade is an economist who has returned from an academic career in Asia to serve as Mr. Lopez Obrador’s chief negotiator. He was Mexico’s lead negotiator for the creation of the World Trade Organization, then served as a founding deputy director there. He was also a senior adviser on fiscal affairs at the International Monetary Fund.