Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Robert Lighthizer speaks after he was sworn as U.S. Trade Representative during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, U.S. on May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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.

Story continues below advertisement

For subscribers: Trudeau urged to lay out Canada's NAFTA objectives

Explainer: What the U.S. wants from NAFTA talks

Lawrence Martin: Stop fretting, Canada – NAFTA is safe

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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."

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

The two countries are broadly aligned; both want to preserve as much of NAFTA as possible against any protectionist push from the United States.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the authors of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies