Political heavyweights hit Washington in hunt for NAFTA deal

Officials from Prime Minister’s office, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland part of talks

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, speaks with media in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. New Buy North American rules for steel in auto parts would be central to a new NAFTA deal. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is in Washington for the second time in days and says good progress is being made, but she won’t comment on the timing of a deal. (Alex Panetta/The Canadian Press)

Negotiations have entered an around-the-clock phase in an effort to get a new NAFTA agreement within days, with top political staff converging in Washington for meetings stretching into the night Tuesday and beyond.

Top officials in the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flew down to join Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for talks at the U.S. trade building, and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner also made an appearance.

After a three-hour meeting with her U.S. counterpart Robert Lighthizer, Freeland emerged to announce that she was remaining in Washington for at least another day.

“At this point everyone is working 24-7,” Freeland told reporters. ”It’s about sending each other proposals and being ready to respond to them … We are going to be working hard late into the night based on some of the points that were raised today.

“We’ll be back at it tomorrow.”

The source of this flurry of activity is the political calendar, with a confluence of events about to hit: a legislative deadline next month for the current Republican-led Congress to vote on the deal, the Mexican presidential elections, a short-staffed U.S. trade team trying to shift its focus to Asia — and fresh news that Lighthizer is being sent to China for talks next week.

Four people briefed on the NAFTA developments said they see a deal being possible as early as this week, based on a variety of factors. For one thing, the talks are drawing the political heavy-hitters of each country.

Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford and his director of U.S. affairs Brian Clow are at the talks, as are the U.S. and Canadian ambassadors to each country, Kushner, and top Mexican minister Luis Videgaray — all making rare appearances alongside the ministers leading the NAFTA file.

One industry stakeholder said: “The negotiation has been elevated to the political level.”

Trump himself said an agreement could come soon. “We’re doing very nicely with NAFTA. I can make a deal very quickly,” Trump said Tuesday, though he added that he wasn’t sure.

Canada’s official position is that there is no deadline pressure.

In fact, Freeland made a point of alluding to ongoing irritants, after repeating her oft-stated view that autos would be the key to a new deal: “There are other issues that still need to be resolved,” she said.

But she repeated that autos remained the main focus at the table.

According to sources familiar with the autos negotiations, a new agreement would adopt a Buy North American approach to steel in autos, with a requirement that high-value parts consist mainly of steel from this continent. One source pegged the steel requirement at 70 per cent.

In addition, the new rules would significantly ramp up the North American content requirement for all other parts, from the current 62.5 per cent of a car to 75 per cent.

Rules for individual pieces would change, with a focus on keeping high-value manufacturing on this continent.

Items like engines and batteries would have to be 75 per cent North American; the standard for mid-value parts like the electronics in seats would be 70 per cent; and it would be 65 per cent for cheaper products like seat-belts.

Now, says Flavio Volpe, head of the Canadian Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association, the challenge is getting the fine print crafted properly so that there is no accidental damage to the industry.

He said a particular concern is the number of years it will take to phase in the new rules. The U.S. has been proposing a two-year transition, but Volpe said auto investments are already locked in a few years in advance as companies work on five-to-seven-year planning cycles.

He said companies could simply ignore the NAFTA rules and pay the tariff if they find the rules impossible to meet. He added that there aren’t any idle North American plants to which production could be immediately shifted.

“If you make it happen quickly, it won’t happen,” Volpe said of the changes.

“They’ll have to break contracts with current suppliers (if it’s done too quickly), pay for the moving (of supply chains) … and compensate now-former suppliers.”

Freeland said her team is indeed sifting through the finer details on autos.

“We are the diligent, do-your-homework, fact-based country,” she told reporters, describing the auto talks. ”We’re very, very focused right now on digging into some of the details, making sure there are no unintended consequences — being sure we get things right.”

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Ponoka’s Ronnie Racing wins Hot August Night

About 15,000 people filled the Castrol Raceway stands at the motorsports complex

Ponoka County residents divided on farmland uses

There were about 150 people at the county’s meeting related to reducing confined feeding operations.

Ponoka County slows changes to CFO plans

Residents speak their concerns over the potential of changing areas allowing CFOs

PHOTOS: Samson Cree Nation Pow Wow

The Samson Cree Nation hosted its annual Pow Wow, celebrating youth this year

Ponoka Traffic Unit investigate scooter incident

A motorcyclist appears to have lost control of her Suzuki scooter on Highway 2 north of Ponoka

PHOTOS: B.C. city wakes up to darkness under wildfire smoke

The rest of the province also dealing with thick haze as smoky skies continue

Canadians believe in immigration but concerned about asylum seekers: study

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada paid for study to understand Canadian attitudes

These are the highest-paid actresses of 2018

In its list released this week Forbes said all 10 earned a total of $186 million before tax

Vintage vehicle subject of RCMP search

Two Hills RCMP seek to identify owner of recovered 1940’s vehicle

Canada’s tax system unfairly favours wealthy, poll of CRA auditors suggests

Four of every five respondents think loopholes and tax credits built into the system benefit the rich

Banff’s Sunshine ski resort upset with proposed guidelines from Parks Canada

The plan would allow for more visitors but wouldn’t let Sunshine build additional facilities

Publication ban lifted on details about Fredericton shooting that killed 4

Judge lifts publication ban on court documents related to the Fredericton shooting

Feds to allow charities to engage in political, but not partisan, activity

The plan is to allow charities to pursue political activities

Trump suggests Canada has been sidelined from latest NAFTA negotiations

Canadian officials have insisted they’re unfazed by being left out of the discussions

Most Read