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Opinion In NAFTA talks, Canada and Mexico need to stick together

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat, and now vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Another NAFTA “deadline” has passed, but the negotiations carry on. And that is what really matters. Canada and Mexico need to stick together, focus on their shared objectives and bear down for what now appears will be a more reasonable negotiating tempo.

The North American free-trade agreement negotiations seem to have gone on forever but, in fact, we have only been at it for 10 months. There have been eight rounds, a December “intercessional” and, in recent weeks, a series of sessions that saw Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland shuttling back and forth for days in Washington.

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All this effort has resulted in considerable progress.

Negotiators have scoped out a framework that would include 30-plus chapters and half a dozen annexes. Mexican chief negotiator Kenneth Smith Ramos tweeted that nine chapters are now “closed”, although nothing is final until the whole deal is done. The negotiated chapters cover regulatory practices, administration, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, competition, small and medium-sized enterprises, anti-corruption, environment, energy, telecommunications and trade barriers. Sectoral annexes include chemicals and proprietary food formulas.

The U.S. side took as their starting point the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that, ironically, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from after taking office. The Canadian and Mexican negotiators’ used the original NAFTA, arguing that if the U.S. wanted to achieve their TPP gains, they would have to negotiate it.

In recent weeks, negotiations have centred on auto-content rules. Supply chains have made car assembly the most traded commodity within North America. The U.S. wants 75 per cent North American content (it’s currently 62.5 per cent) with 30 to 40 per cent made with labour that is paid more than US$15 an hour. This would affect Mexican competitivenes; their auto workers’ wages average US$3-$4 an hour. Not surprisingly, they are loath to agree. They want a long phase-in period as well as concessions in other parts of the agreement,.

Some suggest that Canada should dump Mexico and then negotiate a bilateral auto agreement with the United States. This would be a strategic blunder. The 1965 auto pact was our first sectoral free-trade agreement and it guaranteed jobs and production in Canada. But it is just one piece in a much bigger and successful North American trading arrangement.

While trade with the United States under NAFTA has expanded threefold and the U.S. remains our preponderant trading partner, the hidden success story is the Canada-Mexico relationship. Mexico is now our third-largest trading partner. Canadians have made big investments in mining, banking and manufacturing in Mexico. And, after the U.S., Mexico is our favourite tourism destination.

During the long and ultimately successful negotiations to reopen the U.S. market to our beef exports – the country-of-origin labeling dispute – we worked in tandem with Mexico. Together, we utilized NAFTA and World Trade Organization dispute-settlement provisions. We formulated our retaliatory list together. We succeeded because we stuck together.

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With the low-hanging fruit now harvested, the NAFTA negotiations are into the difficult issues. The auto-content rules are just the first. Mexican support will be vital to sustain dispute settlement and to preserve access for reciprocity in government procurement. We need to be united in pushing back on the sunset clause and preserving temporary entry provisions. And when the U.S. comes after us on supply marketing, patent protection and the threshold level for border duties, Mexican advice will be useful.

Mexico stood up for Canada when Justin Trudeau pirouetted in discussions with leaders in Da Nang, Vietnam, on what is now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Some were ready to toss Canada under the bus. The Mexicans persuaded them to give Canada another chance.

As part of our trade diversification strategy, Canada is reaching into the Americas. We want associate membership in the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Chile, Peru, Colombia) and Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay). Do we think that leaving Mexico in the lurch would help us in these negotiations? The 33 nations south of the Rio Grande also represent a quarter of the votes we need in our campaign for a United Nations Security Council seat.

The Trump approach is to divide and conquer. Ending our alignment with Mexico would play right into U.S. hands. There is still much more that unites Canada and Mexico and much more to be gained by working together. Let us recall Ben Franklin’s advice to those framing the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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