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NAFTA negotiations begin: U.S. wants major changes to agreement, not tweaks

U.S. trade rep hails ‘historic day’ as NAFTA talks begin in Washington
ABOVE: Robert E. Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative to the NAFTA renegotiations in Washington, praised what he called a "historic" day not just for the U.S., but for all of North America.

U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer welcomed his Canadian and Mexican counterparts to Washington, D.C., for what he called a historic day — the first round of NAFTA renegotiations.

Lighthizer said it’s the first time in American history that a major trade agreement is being renegotiated, and the first time a would-be president has kept his promise to reopen a trade deal.

READ MORE: Trump’s bluster will dominate NAFTA negotiations

“This is an historic day for the United States,” Lighthizer said. “American politicians have been promising to renegotiate NAFTA for years. But today President Trump is going to fulfil those promises.”

“We feel that NAFTA has fundamentally failed many, many Americans and needs major improvement.”

He said he shares Donald Trump’s views on trade and that the U.S. wants substantial changes.

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That includes changes to the rules for importing auto parts, higher labour standards and a new dispute-settlement process that respects the sovereignty of individual countries. The dispute settlement question has been a historic irritant with Canada.

READ MORE: Trump administration releases NAFTA goals during Made in America week

It was the final issue resolved on the final night of negotiations in the 1987 agreement and even caused Canada to withdraw from the talks at one point. At issue is whether international panels should have the power to settle cross-border disputes between companies.

Canada has been resistant to allowing American courts to decide such cases – it has, in fact, successfully used the dispute-settlement body in Chapter 19 in the softwood lumber fight, for instance.

It’s true that NAFTA has benefited many, in particular, those in the farm sector, Lighthizer said.

WATCH: US NAFTA rep says he ‘completely agrees’ with Donald Trump on trade

US NAFTA rep says he ‘completely agrees’ with Donald Trump on trade
US NAFTA rep says he ‘completely agrees’ with Donald Trump on trade

“But for countless Americans, this agreement has failed,” he continued. “We cannot ignore the huge trade deficits; the lost manufacturing jobs; the businesses that have closed or moved.”

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Some 700,000 lost U.S. jobs are linked to NAFTA, he added: “The numbers are clear.”

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland pointed to statistics showing Canada-U.S. trade is balanced. Freeland opened her remarks by holding up a picture of U.S. and Mexican firefighters helping to douse forest fire flames in British Columbia.

She said Canada’s objectives are clear — protecting NAFTA as an engine of job creation and growth and to modernize the trade pact to bring it up to date.

WATCH: Chrystia Freeland holds bilateral meeting with Mexican counterpart ahead of NAFTA talks

Chrystia Freeland holds bilateral meeting with Mexican counterpart ahead of NAFTA talks
Chrystia Freeland holds bilateral meeting with Mexican counterpart ahead of NAFTA talks

Such spirit also rang through in the remarks of Mexico’s lead minister, Ildefonso Guajardo. He said the talks should seek to produce a “win-win-win” for all three countries, a notion recently expressed by U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence.

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He said NAFTA was more than a trade deal – but pushed the countries closer together, and made them think of themselves as a region. He said these talks will not reverse that.

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“The process we begin today is not about going back to the past. It is about looking to the future,” Guajardo said. “The issue is not about tearing apart what has worked…. For a deal to be successful, it has to work for all parties involved….

“Otherwise, it’s not a deal.”