MEXICO CITY – Another round of NAFTA talks wrapped up with all key issues still deadlocked Tuesday as negotiators prepared to leave Mexico City with a plethora of question marks lingering over the trade deal.
The negotiators made progress on a variety of technical files, nearly concluding some less-controversial chapters like digital trade, sanitary measures, customs enforcement and telecommunications.
But on hot-button files like autos, dairy, dispute resolution, and a U.S. idea to make it easier to terminate NAFTA, they cite no real progress. Sources from the host country Mexico described a lingering standoff on multiple fronts, which Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland confirmed back in Ottawa.
“There are some areas where more extreme (U.S.) proposals have been put forward. These are proposals we simply cannot agree to,” Freeland said outside the House of Commons.
“What we’ve done in some of these areas is ask for a better understanding of those proposals. We really feel a fact-based approach is the way to get a good result… (We’re asking): ‘Do you agree with our facts, or do you disagree with our facts?”‘
That approach has frustrated some on the U.S. side.
An American familiar with the talks says the other countries would be better off making counter-proposals, rather than what they did at this round – show up with presentations about how damaging the American proposals would be to the U.S. itself.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer warned on Tuesday that unless Canada and Mexico engage on their major NAFTA demands, the negotiations “will not reach a satisfactory result.”
In a statement, Lighthizer said he was “concerned about the lack of headway,” in the talks. “Thus far, we have seen no evidence that Canada or Mexico are willing to seriously engage on provisions that will lead to a rebalanced agreement,” Lighthizer said, adding that he hoped the two U.S. neighbors “come to the table in a serious way so we can see meaningful progress before the end of the year.”
A front-page headline in Mexico’s Excelsior newspaper described the dynamic this way: “‘Mexico and Canada form a common front against the U.S.” Mexicans aware of the talks vehemently rejected the idea of an organized Canada-Mexico tag-team.
They said, for instance, that there are no pre-session strategy huddles between Canada and Mexico, and said they simply have similar interests on a few important files: “(But) gang up on the U.S.? No, no, no,” said one Mexican source, speaking on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the matter.
Mexico demonstrated at this round, however, that it’s willing to play hardball.
It demonstrated that two can play at the game of zero-sum thinking and hostile tit-for-tat. On the issue of Buy American, the Mexicans said they could respond with Buy Mexico policies in public contracts and the biggest loser would be the U.S. That’s because American companies do more construction business in Mexico than vice-versa, they argued.
“We would all lose,” said another Mexican source. “But the U.S. loses more.”
The Mexico City round ends with uncertainty on multiple fronts. Two major question marks: will President Donald Trump start pulling out of NAFTA as a negotiating ploy? And what happens if a deal isn’t done by the end of the current schedule of talks, now extended to March?
One thing the Mexican sources are adamant about – if Trump makes good on his threat to start the NAFTA cancellation process as a bargaining ploy, they will refuse to negotiate under that pressure and would rather let the U.S. withdraw.
They said it’s impossible to negotiate with a gun to the temple, because every concession would be seen as Mexico caving. They said they would simply allow the U.S. to walk away, accelerate trade talks with Brazil and Argentina and expand trade with Canada in meat, wheat and energy, where Canadian suppliers would pick up some of the U.S. slack.
“There’s the door,” one Mexican said, pointing at an actual door.
“We will send a couple of decrees to the Senate (of Mexico) saying that (from) this moment forward, U.S. goods and persons are no longer going to be traded under NAFTA preferential provisions.”
Canada has not drawn such a hard line.
The politicians leading the talks have attempted to turn down the public pressure. Freeland, Robert Lighthizer and Ildefonso Guajardo skipped this round and will skip another round next month in Washington.
READ MORE: NAFTA negotiations will head to Montreal
They will be back at the table in the next round in Canada, in late January, in Montreal. The politicians will review progress made, and begin assessing next steps for the February and March rounds and what happens thereafter if there’s no deal.
The Mexicans say they’re fine to keep negotiating after that – even though there are national elections there and in the U.S.
*with a file from Reuters