Crain News Service report
DETROIT — Supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) see time as their best friend.
Trump administration officials originally intended to rewrite the 23-year-old agreement with Mexico and Canada in a mere five months. The business community also was in favor of a quick negotiation that would focus on achievable goals and not devolve into political theater.
But the schedule has been pushed back as negotiations bogged down over contentious U.S. proposals on issues such as rules of origin that would affect the auto industry.
Now, as fears increase that U.S. President Donald Trump may fulfill his threat to pull out of NAFTA, the business community is looking to prolong the process even more.
“We need to buy ourselves more time,” Kellie Meiman, a managing partner at government affairs consultancy McLarty Associates in Washington, D.C., told representatives of auto suppliers at a recent forum sponsored by Automotive News.
“We need to build up that fact-based public support for the agreement.”
Ms. Meiman, a former U.S. trade negotiator, expressed hope that Canada and Mexico would offer counterproposals during coming rounds of talks, even if they are pro forma, just to keep the process from derailing.
Business interests have mostly given up trying to convince Trump administration officials about the need to preserve NAFTA with some modest fixes and updates. One round of negotiations outside Washington ended in acrimony Oct. 13 over hard-line U.S. proposals and accusations from Canadian and Mexican officials that the U.S. was pushing an America-first agenda. The latest round, in Mexico City, ended in November at an impasse.
Some analysts saw the proposals as an attempt to force Mexico and Canada from the table, giving Mr. Trump the pretext to withdraw from NAFTA.
U.S. negotiators had set a late December deadline for finishing talks to avoid clashing with the 2018 Mexican presidential campaign and U.S. midterm congressional elections, when making compromises could be difficult.
However, negotiators have extended talks into the first quarter of 2018, with the next round scheduled for Jan. 23-28 in Montreal.
Meanwhile, as the White House looks for a win it can trumpet to its political base, industry representatives following the talks are hoping the time prior to the next round of talks will help them forge pro-NAFTA coalitions.