Justin Trudeau the happy trade warrior is back, in Washington, and sounding hopeful no matter the current threat to cross-border commerce.
You might have forgotten this Mr. Trudeau – the one who wore a slight smile even while then-president Donald Trump sat beside him in the Oval Office four years ago and casually threatened to rip up the North American free-trade agreement, and who presented an unflaggingly positive face as he repeated cross-border trade stats to Congressional leaders.
In his first trip to Washington since Joe Biden became President, Mr. Trudeau publicly played down a new U.S. electric vehicles proposal that his Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, later said has the potential to become the biggest issue in the Canada-U.S. relationship.
And Mr. Trudeau spends a lot of time telling Americans how good Canada is for them.
This time, the happy warrior talked a lot more about unions and good wages. His progressive trade talk didn’t really work with Mr. Trump’s folks, but it is the sort of argument that rings a political bell with Mr. Biden and his labour base.
At a Wednesday question-and-answer session for international relations students, organized by the Wilson Center, Mr. Trudeau dwelled on critical minerals, which are key manufacturing inputs for things like EVs. The U.S. needs those resources and its close friend Canada has them, he said. He talked about climate change and said Canada’s policy requiring half of new vehicles to be zero emission by 2030 is aligned with the Biden administration’s policy.
All that was leading up to one of the Canadian government’s biggest trade concerns right now. The U.S. Build Back Better bill now before the U.S. Congress would provide heavy subsidies to buyers of U.S.-made EVs. The rebates would be so generous that they could box Canada out of the EV industry. But Mr. Trudeau touched on the dispute only lightly.
“We are a little bit concerned about the zero-emission vehicle mandates, or rebates, brought forward by the current proposal in Congress right now, that could have a real negative impact on the auto pact,” he said. “But that’s part of the conversations we’re going to have today, to make sure that people understand that doing this together is good for all of us.”
A little bit concerned? Canada’s auto sector views the idea with a little bit of panic. Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said last week the U.S. EV proposal is worse than the threats of steep tariffs made by Mr. Trump – which Mr. Volpe referred to at the time as risking “Carmageddon.”
Ms. Freeland insisted later that the Canadian delegation made it “absolutely clear” to U.S. Congressional leaders that EV rebates are a major cross-border issue for Canada, potentially the biggest, and a violation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade, too.
But she said Canada is trying to offer solutions, and looking for a win-win. Perhaps she was referring to an auto industry proposal that Canada join the U.S. in offering incentives as long as they apply to North American-made EVs. But the PM was playing good cop.
Canadian business leaders have suggested they want to see Mr. Trudeau get more pushy with Mr. Biden, arguing he has allowed protectionist measures and failed to co-ordinate the lifting of border restrictions.
But that’s just not Justin Trudeau. He’s not coming to Washington with his teeth bared, unless it’s in a smile.
His NAFTA optimism more or less worked last time. That wasn’t because Mr. Trump stayed charmed, but because enough U.S. players agreed with the notion of a helpful relationship with Canada. On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau was talking again about what Canada can do for the U.S.
What’s on Mr. Biden’s agenda, aside from domestic concerns and climate change? China. Mr. Trudeau told the Wilson Center crowd that democracies must work together to counter Chinese coercion. He said that two Canadians were jailed by Beijing in reprisal for Canada fulfilling its extradition treaty with the U.S. He argued supplies of some critical minerals have been “cornered by certain parts of the world,” and that the pandemic has shown reliable supply chains are important.
The risk is that the helpful Canadian approach won’t have an impact on a Biden administration fixated on a struggle to get through its domestic agenda.
Ms. Freeland insisted that the Canadian government is once again pressing its case beyond the White House, with Congress. But Mr. Trudeau is once again playing happy warrior, and the strategy is to tell Americans what Canada can do for them.
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