NAFTA talks keeping Freeland in Washington, sends substitute to NATO summit

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WASHINGTON — With the NAFTA talks at a critical juncture, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is changing her travel plans and staying in the U.S. capital.

Freeland had been scheduled to fly to Brussels today for the start of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, which was to feature an encounter with the newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Instead she got a phone call from Pompeo as he left Washington on Thursday and Freeland remained in the U.S. for the marathon round aimed at getting a new continental trade deal.

”Very unfortunately, I have decided that I will not be able to attend the NATO … meeting,” Freeland told reporters as she entered the U.S. trade building.

”I think it’s important for us to keep on working at this.”

Her parliamentary secretary Omar Alghabra is travelling to Brussels in her place.

There are still numerous differences at the NAFTA negotiating table, notwithstanding several positive signals, and an all-out push to get an agreement by Tuesday, when U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs take effect and the U.S. trade czar expects to head to China.

One Canadian briefed on the talks says there are gulfs over a U.S. push to introduce a so-called sunset clause in the agreement and cancel the Chapter 19 dispute-settlement system, as well as divisions over intellectual property and public procurement.

When asked about the chance of a deal in the next few days Unifor union leader Jerry Dias was unequivocal: ”Less than zero per cent.” He said that aside from autos, the key issues had seen little movement.

Mexico’s economy minister was not nearly that emphatic but he also downplayed expectations of imminent success. Ildefonso Guajardo told reporters that he was also remaining in Washington, because there is still a lot to do.

“Too many things. Too many issues to tackle. So we have to keep on working,” Guajardo said.

”We’re trying to do our best, but there are still a lot of things pending. … We are (working) on all the topics. Auto rules, intellectual property. Everything is on the table.”

Both he and Freeland said they can stay in Washington as long as necessary.

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press