Washington (AFP) – The top United States, Mexican and Canadian trade negotiators met on Wednesday in an effort to put the final touches on a regional free trade agreement that can pass muster in the US Congress.
Democratic legislators have been asking for tougher enforcement of labor standards in the agreement formerly known as NAFTA.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer met with Mexico’s top trade negotiator Jesus Seade and Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland to discuss adjustments needed to secure approval for the rebranded US-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA.
But none of the officials would provide much in the way of specifics on the content or timing of an agreement.
Freeland, who was greeted warmly with kisses and a hug from the normally media shy Lighthizer on the front steps of the trade representative’s building, said it was “unwise to make predictions around time” nor would she negotiate in public.
“Canada absolutely believes that getting this deal ratified in all three countries would be a positive step for Canada, for the United states, for Mexico. It would be positive for our entire continent,” she told reporters at the conclusion of the hour-long meeting.
“We are here to do the work needed to get there.”
Seade, who also met with Lighthizer earlier in the day, with Freeland participating by phone, said talks appear to be in the final stretch to win approval
Seade told reporters after leaving the meeting that “everything appears to be going in the right direction,” but he would not speculate on the timeframe for final approval.
“I feel like we are headed in the right direction,” he said. “I have the concrete proposals with me, and I have to study them carefully.”
– Demanding changes –
Lighthizer has been engaged in tough negotiations with the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives for months trying to secure a deal that can win the approval of legislators.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday recently that an agreement was “within range,” and earlier this month she said she would like to get the accord approved this year.
Negotiators signed an agreement last year on a new continental trade deal to replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
But Pelosi on Monday said the revised pact “still left American workers exposed to losing their jobs to Mexico, included unacceptable provisions to lock in high prescription drug prices, and fell short of key environmental standards.”
“Above all, the NAFTA 2.0 draft lacked the concrete, effective enforcement mechanisms needed to ensure that the agreement became more than a list of promises on paper,” she said in a statement.
Mexican lawmakers ratified the deal in June but Democrats in Washington and US labor representatives have raised concerns — looking for stronger guarantees that new Mexican labor laws will be enforced.
Additions or amendments to the pact could be made in the form of a side letter or addendum.
Freeland, who has handled the trade talks since President Donald Trump demanded NAFTA be renegotiated, said Ottawa is happy to be “a supportive partner” in aiding Washington with its ratification process, and said she has had good meetings with congressional leaders including Pelosi.
Ottawa has said it would ratify the agreement in lockstep with Washington.
There was no word on the schedule for further trilateral meetings, but Seade said he would travel to Ottawa on Friday for “a more detailed” working meeting with Freeland.
“It’s time that we reach an agreement,” he said.