OTTAWA — The federal government is still expecting NAFTA talks to accelerate this summer even though U.S. President Donald Trump says he’s in no rush to sign a deal until after the U.S. midterm elections this fall.
A government official familiar with the plan says now that Mexico’s presidential election is done, Ottawa wants to restart talks as soon as possible, even though Trump says he won’t sign a new deal until after U.S. voters go to the polls in November.
“Our priority has always been to conclude a mutually beneficial agreement as quickly as possible and that, I think, remains our goal,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity about a matter they weren’t authorized to discuss publicly.
“That’s what we’re going to stay focused on. We’ll see where it goes.”
The effort to restart stalled negotiations on the North America Free Trade Agreement comes with Canada and the U.S. swapping punitive tariffs on imports in an ongoing cross-border trade fight.
On Sunday, Ottawa responded to the Trump administration’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum with duties of its own against U.S. imports. The Trudeau government has described Canada’s retaliation as dollar-for-dollar, reciprocal tariffs that target steel, aluminum as well as a long list of consumer goods.
Trump himself has already threatened to go even further by putting tariffs on the automotive sector, which could prove far more damaging for the Canadian economy than the steel and aluminum duties.
With the tariff fight as the backdrop, Ottawa hopes to move forward with NAFTA.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has said she spoke with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer six times last week and that she expects NAFTA talks to move into a higher gear this summer.
Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he supports the continued renegotiation of NAFTA, and wants his own team of experts to be part of the talks before he takes office Dec. 1.
Until Lopez Obrador is sworn in, members of the current Mexican administration will continue to serve as the country’s lead NAFTA negotiators, the official said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Lopez Obrador by phone. The two discussed “mutually beneficial economic and trading relationship between the two countries, and their shared priority of updating the North American Free Trade Agreement for the betterment of their peoples,” Trudeau’s office said in a statement.
In an interview that aired Sunday on Fox News, Trump said he could quickly sign a revised NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, but instead wants to land a better deal for the U.S. Asked about the timing of an agreement, Trump said: “I want to wait until after the election.”
On Ottawa’s tariffs on U.S. goods, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Monday that it does nothing to help Canada and only hurts American workers.
“We’ve been very nice to Canada for many years and they’ve taken advantage of that, particularly advantage of our farmers,” she said.
In recent months, Trump has frequently attacked Canadian trade barriers on agriculture with a particular focus on dairy. He’s insisted they’ve hurt American farmers.
In the Fox News interview, Trump said he proposed to his G7 partners at last month’s summit in Quebec that they remove all trade-related barriers and taxes.
“Canada, you’re not going to get 275 per cent for your dairy and you’re going to take down all your barriers,” Trump said as an example.
“We’re going to take down all our barriers, we’re going to take down all our taxes, right. Do you know what happened? Everybody said, ‘Uh, can we get on to another subject?'”
Trudeau has insisted the U.S. president’s complaints about Canada’s trade barriers are the result of his refusal to give in to Trump’s demands to do away with the country’s supply-managed system that protects dairy, poultry and eggs farmers.
The prime minister has said they’ve disagreed over Trump’s call for Canada to open up its supply management system during NAFTA talks.
— with files from Associated Press
Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press