WASHINGTON – A high-level dinner of cabinet members from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico will mark the start of NAFTA negotiations this month, followed by a seven-course diet of negotiating rounds crammed in rapid succession.
As their negotiating teams arrive in Washington for the talks starting Aug. 16, sources say the cabinet members leading the process, including Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, will hold a dinner to mark the occasion.
Sources say the schedule will then feature seven rounds of talks by the end of the year, held at a far more frenzied pace than is the norm for international trade discussions in the hope of concluding a continental trade deal before the Mexican election campaign next year.
The opening round will be held Aug. 16-20 in Washington, Mexico will host the second a few weeks later, then Canada will host the third. The initial session, officials will prioritize the easiest issues: settling on a meeting agenda, on the number of negotiating groups, and on how to compile an agreement text.
There will be a buildup to the toughest irritants during the fall, predicted a source close to the negotiations who could not comment publicly.
After the initial agenda-setting, he said, negotiators will likely move onto the already-agreed-upon elements in the now-dormant Trans-Pacific Partnership. Then around October, he said, the most difficult issues will start emerging: dairy, auto assembly and pharmaceuticals are among those anticipated late-stage sticking points.
One trade expert says it’s standard procedure to start with the easy bits. Laura Dawson of Washington’s Wilson Center Canada Institute said the negotiations always toughen toward the end.
She compared it to a certain Olympic sport.
“It’s a little bit like long-track speedskating,” Dawson said in an interview.
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“They go very, very slowly around the rink, figuring out who’s where in the race; then in the last 30 seconds that’s where a flurry of activity takes place,” she said. “It’s a long, slow buildup that is culminated in a final burst of activity. Because that’s when the real tradeoffs happen. What you do in the first several rounds is just figure out where everybody is. It’s an information-gathering exercise.”
Those hard tradeoffs won’t likely be decided by the negotiators themselves. Canadian officials say major decisions on things like auto parts and dairy are when the negotiators – Steve Verheul for Canada, John Melle for the U.S. and Kenneth Smith Ramos for Mexico – will be calling upon their respective cabinet members.
While that’s normal, there is something unusual about these talks, Dawson said – the pace.
“It’s not an easy negotiation,” she said. “Some people are being very optimistic and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, we can still get it done by the end of the year.”‘
Dawson said it’s good to aim high, but that ambition could easily stumble against a litany of demands and concerns from three countries.
Canada’s ambassador to Washington says he would love to have it wrapped up quickly.
David MacNaughton said it’s about economic confidence. With the Canadian economy already roaring, and concern about a U.S. border tax just recently assuaged, clearing out lingering trade uncertainty would leave an open path for a surging economy, he said.
So he’s hoping the negotiators confound the legion of skeptics – those who believe a trade deal by early 2018 is mission impossible. MacNaughton said the key to pulling off that fast feat is to have the negotiations guided by a spirit of compromise, not confrontation.
“If everyone goes into it looking to have a win-win-win situation, then it’s always possible,” MacNaughton said in an interview Monday.
“The trade veterans say a deal of this complexity takes a long time to negotiate. I appreciate their insight and expertise, and they may ultimately be proven right. Having said that, there are a variety of reasons why each of the United States, Mexico and Canada would like to see this get wrapped up expeditiously.”