The renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement will start on Aug. 16, the earliest possible date, as the Trump administration pushes an aggressive timeline that aims to close a deal by early next year.
The first round of talks – which will reopen the pact between Canada, the United States and Mexico for the first time in its 23-year history – will take place in Washington and last four days, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced Wednesday.
Mr. Lighthizer also unveiled the United States's chief negotiator: John Melle, a career civil servant who has worked at USTR since 1988 and is described by those who know him as a steady hand with a direct, no-drama style.
The announcements came the same day Mexican trade officials, mostly from the Secretariat of the Economy, hunkered down with their Canadian counterparts in Ottawa, in what sources said was a "relationship-building" exercise ahead of the talks.
New details also emerged about the Trudeau government's approach to the negotiations. For one, Canadian provinces will not be at the table, although the federal government said they will consult premiers regularly.
During the first two years of the recent Canada-European Union negotiations, provincial representatives were involved. But this was deemed unworkable and their involvement transitioned into more of a consultative role. In the NAFTA talks, provinces will be consulted but will not be at the table, similar to the later years of the Canada-EU negotiations.
And Ottawa has obliged business lobbyists and other stakeholders to sign non-disclosure agreements so they don't reveal details of the country's NAFTA strategy.
Mr. Lighthizer and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have signalled that they want negotiations to unfold as quickly as possible. A Mexican official with knowledge of the process confirmed that the aim will be to conclude talks by late 2017 or early 2018.
Reuters on Wednesday reported the three sides had agreed to a seven-round negotiation with three-week breaks between the rounds. But Canadian and Mexican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the number of rounds and the time between them are still fluid details.
Under the U.S. law empowering the President to negotiate trade deals, the administration is obliged to inform Congress 90 days before negotiations start. Mr. Lighthizer provided that notice May 18, making Aug. 16 the first possible date for talks.
The compressed schedule is designed to get a deal done before next year's Mexican presidential election campaign heats up and the charged political atmosphere makes it harder to reach an agreement. But the tight timeline could be tough to meet, given the many contentious items on the Trump administration's agenda.
The White House wants to cut the U.S. trade deficit, scrap dispute-resolution panels that have often ruled in Canada's favour in trade spats with the United States and gain more access for American companies to Canadian government contracts, while reserving the right for the U.S. state and local governments to shut out Canadian firms with "Buy American" provisions.
Thomas Bollyky, a former U.S. trade negotiator, said closing a deal in just a few months is virtually unheard of. "There has never been any agreement that fast from launch of negotiation to implementation," he said. "Under any circumstances, it seems unlikely."
It will also be hard to get Congress to ratify a new deal close to next fall's midterm elections, he said, raising the prospect that the NAFTA process could stretch into 2019.
Former deputy USTR Robert Holleyman said one factor that could speed up negotiations is that some of what will be on the table – such as expanding free trade to cover the digital economy – was already negotiated between the three countries as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The choice of Mr. Melle as chief negotiator also bodes well for faster talks. "You've got the A-team working on that. John Melle is a great negotiator: He knows all the issues inside and out," Mr. Holleyman said.
One person who has worked with Mr. Melle said he does not waste time with posturing during talks and does not employ the sort of abrasive tactics – such as blowing up or storming out of the room – that some negotiators use. Mr. Melle is a lifelong bureaucrat. He will be facing off against Steve Verheul, a veteran Canadian trade official who previously led talks on the Canada-European Union trade deal. Mr. Verheul worked on the original NAFTA talks and the Uruguay round of multilateral negotiations that created the World Trade Organization.
On Wednesday, Mexican negotiators held talks with their Canadian counterparts in Ottawa. This tete-a-tete was a followup to the Tuesday meeting of all three countries in Washington to plan for NAFTA negotiations.
Canadian government officials played down any notion the Ottawa meetings were designed to form a common front before talks begin. They characterized the meeting as an informal get-together to allow mid-level Mexican trade and economic experts to get acquainted with their counterparts in Canada.
The two countries are broadly aligned; both want to preserve as much of NAFTA as possible against any protectionist push from the United States.