Deadlock pushes NAFTA talks into next year

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US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (centre), Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (left), and Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal hold a press conference at the conclusion of the fourth round of negotiations for a new North American Free Trade Agreement. AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Canada, the United States and Mexico pushed into 2018 the current talks to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying significant disagreements remained among the three sides.

At a press conference in Washington, representatives of the three governments exchanged mutual accusations of intransigence – leaving the success of the talks, and the future of the 23-year-old trade pact, in doubt.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to scrap the landmark regional trade pact, describing it as a “disaster” that resulted in the export of US jobs.

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After four rounds of talks squeezed into a two month period, negotiators will now allow a month-long cooling-off period before returning to the bargaining table in Mexico on November 17.

But the apparent deadlock in the talks underscored how a keystone of regional trade –  US trade with Mexico has tripled since 1993 to $1.2 trillion –  was now in jeopardy. 

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland accused the United States on Tuesday of “a winner-take-all” mindset that sought to undermine the agreement and she took aim at US proposals on rules of origin for duty-free trade in autos and for rules on access to markets for government procurement contracts.

“We’ve also seen a series of unconventional proposals in critical areas of the negotiations that make our work much more challenging,” Ms Freeland told a joint press conference in Washington.

Likewise, Mexican Finance Minister Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal suggested Mexico had stretched as far as it could in making concessions.

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“We must all understand that we have limits,” he said. “We must ensure that the decisions that we make today do not come back to haunt us tomorrow.”

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer accused Mexico and Canada of being unwilling to relinquish unfair advantages that he said broadened the $500 billion US global trade deficit.

“Frankly, I am surprised and disappointed by the resistance to change from our negotiating partners,” Mr Lighthizer said.

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