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

Martin Mars waterbombers’ firefighting days are done

Wayne Coulson said his company still hopes to find a new home for the vintage aircraft

Comox Valley Accessibility Committee hosting an event at Lewis Centre

If you’ve ever been stumped by how to get into a business… Continue reading

Volunteers needed for annual Mile of Flowers planting project

May 29 the date for this year’s community plant-in

Affordable rental homes under construction in Courtenay

New building expected to be ready for occupancy by February

Local studio prepares for provincial competition

The BC Festival of Performing Arts welcomes top competitors from across the… Continue reading

VIDEO: After the floods, comes the cleanup as Grand Forks rebuilds

Business owners in downtown wonder how long it will take for things to go back to normal

B.C. flood risk switches from snowmelt to rainfall: River Forecast Centre

Kootenays and Fraser River remain serious concerns

Pipeline more important than premiers meeting: Notley

“Canada has to work for all Canadians, that’s why we’re fighting for the pipeline”

Canadian government spending tens of millions on Facebook ads

From January 2016 to March 2018, feds spent more than $24.4 million on Facebook and Instagram ads

VIDEO: How to use naloxone to stop a fentanyl overdose

ANKORS’ Chloe Sage shows what to do when someone is overdosing

B.C. piano teacher faces more sex assault charges

Dmytro Kubyshkin of Coquitlam is accused of sex assault involving former students

Mounties cleared after shooting B.C. man armed with toy gun

Independent Investigations Office reports it will pass on a report to Crown counsel

UPDATED: BC Ferries freezes plans to nix fuel rebates pending government funds

Claire Trevena says she is ‘extremely disappointed’ by a plan by BC Ferries to remove fuel rebates

B.C. sues Alberta over bill that could ‘turn oil taps off’

Lawsuit is the latest move in the two provinces’ ongoing feud over the Kinder Morgan pipeline

Most Read