Skip to main content

Don't panic. That's the message that Mexico's government is preaching from the epicentre of nerves about Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump's promises about Mexico – deporting millions back to the country, building a border wall, rewriting or tearing up NAFTA – are far greater cause for anxiety in Mexico City than Ottawa. But like Justin Trudeau's government, the administration of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is working to tamp down the fear.

"I think we need to be first of all, be patient, and cautious," said Jose Paulo Carreno King, Mexico's undersecretary of foreign affairs for North America. "What's next?"

That's a question, perhaps fuelled by the more muted tones of Mr. Trump's recent statements, about who the unpredictable President Trump will really be, and what he will actually do once in the White House.

"There is a difference, and there has always been a difference, between what can be labelled campaign rhetoric and what the government wants to do. Every change of government, every political change of direction presents challenges. We are certain that we have those right now. But it also presents opportunities," Mr. Carreno said.

Opportunities? That seems like wishful thinking. But the governments of both Mexico and Canada are operating on the notion that the anxiety itself could cause damage. And there is some reason to worry. The concern about trade rules could chill investors. Governments might outwit themselves by assuming Mr. Trump will do things he might actually back away from. And for Mexico, the worry about Mr. Trump might cost them an ally.

There are already many who think Canada should cut Mexico loose as an ally on NAFTA negotiations. The two countries have sometimes teamed up in trilateral trade talks in pressing common interests with the much larger United States. Conservative MP Ed Fast, the former trade minister, argued last week that Mr. Trump's trade rhetoric targets Mexico, so Canada must realize that its interests now lie in going it alone in bilateral talks with the U.S.

Canada and Mexico's trade interests, he said, "are no longer aligned."

Mr. Carreno suggests that makes little sense. Canada and Mexico have a bilateral relationship, he said, that is "going through the best phase in recent history." And there is a trilateral relationship where both Canada and Mexico believe that the North American trade bloc has been important.

"We need to foster both," he said. "We still believe that competition is less and less between countries and more and more between regions. And North America is very well-positioned. We have built not only a region in which we buy and sell amongst us, but we create things together."

At the moment, he said, neither Mexico nor Canada really has anyone they can negotiate with in the U.S. Both governments are having conversations with Mr. Trump's transition team, but it is focused on appointments to cabinet. What the two countries can do is "be more vocal" about the value of the North American trade bloc, he said.

But Mr. Trump's election raises the prospect that a key step that just recently warmed Canada-Mexico bilateral relations will be undone. The Trudeau government's move to lift the requirement that Mexicans obtain visas before visiting Canada – a requirement that was seen by ordinary Mexicans as an insult – sparked a period of good feeling.

Mr. Trump's promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants to Mexico has raised fears of a potential spike in the number of Mexican asylum-seekers coming to Canada when the visa requirement is lifted Dec. 1. Immigration Minister John McCallum said the government will reimpose the visa requirement if the numbers are too high.

"There are a lot of ifs. Let's concentrate on the facts rights now," Mr. Carreno said, refusing to entertain the notion that Canada might reimpose the visa restrictions. "We don't see that scenario."

Again, it's don't panic. Mr. Carreno acknowledges the anxiety is there, of course. "There's always people afraid when the status quo changes, and that's what is happening right now," he said. But in a sense he argues that Mr. Trump's unpredictability is cause for hope, and that there's room to be "optimistic about what President Trump says on January 20, versus what candidate Trump has said in the past."