March 12, 2018 8:09 pm
Updated: March 13, 2018 2:48 pm

Donald Trump pushes for quick NAFTA deal in phone call with Justin Trudeau

WATCH ABOVE: Trudeau says Canada is working to prevent dumped Chinese steel

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President Donald Trump urged the quick completion of the NAFTA negotiations in a phone call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, amid indications the U.S. wants a deal wrapped up this spring.

READ MORE: Trudeau telephones Trump to talk tariffs and trade

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Trudeau called his American counterpart during a tour of aluminum facilities in Quebec, on a day the prime minister did American television interviews to promote the integrated Canada-U.S. economy.

What he heard directly from the president echoed public remarks from Trump’s administration: the U.S. trade czar recently said he wants a new NAFTA concluded within weeks, because of upcoming elections in the different countries.

“President Trump emphasized the importance of quickly concluding the ongoing NAFTA negotiations,” said a readout from the White House.

“(That would) ensure the vitality of United States and North American manufacturing industries and … protect the economic and national security of the United States.”

The U.S. has suggested further delays might imperil the NAFTA process, with an outsider candidate leading polls for Mexico’s July 1 election, and with Trump’s party in danger of losing control of the U.S. Congress.

READ MORE: Canada also faces threat of dumped Chinese steel, will work with U.S. to prevent threat to jobs, Trudeau says

But some veterans of the original NAFTA have expressed doubt that it’s feasible to complete a deal by spring; that’s what it would take to complete the ratification procedures during the current Congress that leaves office this year.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will be in Washington for three days this week – meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and key members of Congress.

Trudeau is brushing off the idea that Canada might be bullied into a deal.

WATCH: Trudeau tries new tactic dealing with Trump administration

The U.S. government has been dropping hints that the decision to excuse Canada and Mexico from tariffs on steel and aluminum might only be temporary, and somehow dependent on the result of trade negotiations.

READ MORE: Trudeau says U.S. aluminum tariffs won’t force Canada’s hand in NAFTA negotiations

Trudeau told a U.S. TV audience he sees them as separate issues: “We don’t link together the tariffs and the negotiations with NAFTA,” he told CNBC in an interview from a Quebec aluminum plant Monday.

Trudeau also rejected the idea that the tariff exemption was some kind of benevolent American favour that required repayment. In Trudeau’s view, the U.S. wasn’t just helping Canada – it helped itself by refraining from slapping tariffs on its No. 1 supplier of both steel and aluminum.

“The exemptions aren’t a magical favour that was being done (for Canada),” Trudeau said.

“(We’re) highlighting that the imposition of tariffs on Canada would end up hurting the U.S. almost as much as it would hurt Canada.”

Trudeau’s view has prominent support: A poll of leading economists from the University of Chicago has found rare unanimity on the topic, with a newly released survey Monday showing that zero per cent of economists surveyed believe tariffs will help Americans.

WATCH: Why did Trump backtrack on his tariffs?

He made the point by mentioning in his U.S. interview that he was a few kilometres from the Bagotville air force base, built during the Second World War to protect critical aluminum supplies required by the military.

READ MORE: Canada’s steel capital of Hamilton, Ont. rattled as Trump tariff threat looms

He says he made similar points to Trump last week, in a phone call before the tariff decision. In a news conference Monday, Trudeau said: “I told the president that imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum does not help with regard to NAFTA… It has a negative impact on the NAFTA talks.”

The prime minister is on a cross-country tour of aluminum and steel factories to demonstrate his government’s support for workers in light of potential threats to those industries from the U.S. administration.

Other stops will include Hamilton, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and Regina.

The Trump administration has set tariffs of 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum, applicable to every country except Canada and Mexico. While the penalties take effect later this month, Trump has encouraged countries to try negotiating exemptions for themselves.

Canada is the United States’ largest foreign provider of steel and aluminum, with about 85 per cent of Canadian exports being directed to that country.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard spoke to reporters alongside Trudeau and said he wouldn’t accept any undue pressure on the province’s dairy farmers as a potential compromise in the steel and aluminum conflict.

Trump and his trade officials have signalled in the past they are looking for more access to Canada’s dairy market within a renegotiated NAFTA deal. Quebec has a supply management system regarding dairy, poultry and eggs, which imposes steep tariffs on those products entering the country.

“On our end we are going to vigorously defend supply management,” Couillard said, adding Quebec’s farmers have already given up market share for other recently negotiated trade deals.

© 2018 The Canadian Press

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