Freeland heads back to Washington for pre-Thanksgiving push to resolve NAFTA differences

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is heading to Washington this afternoon to meet with her American and Mexican counterparts — a pre-U.S. Thanksgiving push to make enough changes to the North American trade agreement to satisfy Congressional Democrats and allow its ratification to proceed.

A working group of Democrats has been wrangling with the Trump administration for months over aspects of the deal —particularly its new higher labour standards and whether they are enforceable, a critical source of concern for the American labour movement.

A senior Canadian government source with direct knowledge of the talks told CBC News that the moment is now ripe for Freeland to join her counterparts, since there’s a high possibility of real movement on the deal.

Mexican and Canadian officials were brought in Wednesday morning to see if the proposed compromises would be acceptable to them. Canada was represented by its chief NAFTA negotiator, Steve Verheul, and the acting ambassador to Washington, Kirsten Hillman.

Freeland, who retained political responsibility for the negotiations in last week’s cabinet shuffle, was attending a cabinet orientation retreat across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau, Que., this morning and did not pause to answer questions from Radio-Canada on her way in. Her office told CBC News she’s spoken with United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer several times this week.

Without seeing changes to the deal first, Democrats have been unwilling to proceed with introducing and eventually voting on an implementation bill for the renamed United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA, as the Americans call it).

‘Progress across the board’

The American Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow had been suggested as a deadline for concluding negotiations between the Democrats and Lighthizer.

With multiple stages remaining in the U.S. ratification process and only a few weeks left on the Congressional calendar, the trade deal risks being overtaken on Washington’s agenda by both the impeachment battle and the upcoming presidential primary season.

“There’s progress across the board,” said Jesus Seade, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister, on his way out of the talks during a noon break today. “A range of issues have been discussed … we are looking at them. They have very creative ideas to find satisfaction to the issues.”

Seade said that he was on his way to review and react to some new documents that he had received from Lighthizer, and might need to discuss some further adjustments, but “every single issue that has made me lose my sleep is off the table … We still have some way to go but we are going well.”

Seade declined to comment on the specific proposals various Congressional Democrats have brought forward. Referring to the process that Lighthizer and the Democrats are engaged in, however, he said that “when we come to an agreement, it certainly will be a huge improvement on the originally signed agreement.”

Labour leaders in the U.S. and Canada are critical of the original NAFTA because of jobs lost in their respective countries once companies no longer faced tariffs when shipping products from Mexico — a market with lower average wages and weaker unions (where they exist). Without strong enforcement measures, the minimum wage provisions and higher labour standards in the revised NAFTA could be meaningless.

Financial help coming from Canada?

Mexico has been trying to convince Democrats that it can be trusted to implement and enforce the higher labour standards the deal includes.

“Enforcement is a commitment of [Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador]. The [Mexican enforcement] budget is pretty much twice what we had assessed was necessary,” Seade said, referring to recent financial commitments meant to assuage Democrats’ concerns.

Last summer, Canada and Mexico struck a joint working group to offer Canadian expertise as the Mexicans implement new collective bargaining standards for workers at thousands of affected workplaces. Representatives met again in September.

The Canadian source who spoke to CBC News said Canada also could be expected to offer financial assistance to Mexico as part of this process.

Seade told reporters in Spanish that he plans to travel to Ottawa on Friday to meet with Freeland.

“Do you think you’ll get a deal by Christmas?” a reporter asked him as he walked away.

“Which Christmas?” he joked. “I hope so.”

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