A NAFTA Deal Inches Closer

It has been a whirlwind week of negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), ending on Friday in apparent deadlock. Canada was not able to reach a deal with the United States on some of the remaining contentious issues, but that did not stop President Trump from submitting a notice of intent to Congress to sign a deal with Mexico that was agreed to earlier this week. This action allows the new trade agreement to be signed by the end of November, before Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto leaves office. While a high degree of uncertainty remains, it is premature to ring the alarm for the end of NAFTA as we know it.

Why? First, there is still some negotiating latitude built into the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation, which outlines the process for how the negotiations unfold. The full text of the agreement has to be made public thirty days after the notice of intent to sign is submitted to Congress. This means that the parties have until the end of September to finalize the contents of the agreement. What we have now is just an agreement in principle, which can be thought of as a draft of the agreement, with a lot of little details still needing to be filled in. Therefore, it is not surprising that the notice submitted to Congress today left open the possibility of Canada joining the agreement “if it is willing” at a later date. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland will resume talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer next Wednesday, and this should be seen as a sign that the negotiations are far from over.

Relatedly, TPA legislation does not provide a clear answer as to whether the President can split NAFTA into two bilateral deals. The original letter of intent to re-open NAFTA, which was submitted by Amb. Lighthizer in May 2017, notified Congress that the President intended to “initiate negotiations with Canada and Mexico regarding modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).” This can be read as signaling that not only were the negotiations supposed to be with both Canada and Mexico, but also that Congress only agreed to this specific arrangement.  In addition, it could be argued that TPA would require President Trump to “restart the clock” on negotiations with a new notice of intent to negotiate with Mexico alone. The bottom line, however, is that it is entirely up to Congress to decide whether or not it will allow for a vote on a bilateral deal with Mexico only, and so far, it appears that Congress is opposed to this. 

In fact, Congress has been fairly vocal about the fact that a NAFTA without Canada simply does not make sense. Canada and Mexico are the top destination for U.S. exports and combined serve as the top source of imports to the United States, with total trade reaching over $1 trillion annually. Furthermore, we don’t just trade things with each other in North America, we make things together. Taking Canada out of NAFTA is analogous to putting a wall in the middle of a factory floor. Economists estimate that every dollar of imports from Mexico includes forty cents of U.S. value added, and for Canada that figure is twenty-five cents for every dollar of imports—these are U.S. inputs in products that come back to the United States.

While President Trump may claim that he’s playing hardball with Canada by presenting an offer they cannot reasonably accept, we should approach such negotiating bluster with caution. In fact, the reality is that there is still plenty of time to negotiate, and Canada seems willing to come back to the table next week. At a press conference at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. after negotiations wrapped up for the week, Minister Freeland remarked that Canada wants a good deal, and not just any deal, adding that a win-win-win was still possible. Negotiations are sure to continue amidst the uncertainty, and it will be a challenging effort to parse the signal from the noise. However, we should remain optimistic that a trilateral deal is within reach and take Friday’s news as just another step in that direction.

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