NAFTA graphic of Canada, Mexico and US flags on puzzle pieces Marc Bruxelle/iStock/Thinkstock

NAFTA negotiations offer progress on ag issues

Election timeline continues to work against negotiators who have yet to reach a major breakthrough on bulk of NAFTA negotiating chapters.

The seventh round of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) modernization efforts wrapped up March 5, with some progress made on chapters of importance to agriculture, most notably a chapter on sanitary and phytosanitary measures.

The negotiations closed out additional chapters on good regulatory practices; administration and publication, and sanitary and phytosanitary measures. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the round did not offer the progress that many had hoped. To complete NAFTA 2.0, he said the countries need agreement on roughly 30 chapters. “So far, after seven months, we have completed just six. Now, granted, these things tend to converge more towards the end of a negotiation,” he said.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Assn. (CCA) said it understands that the government procurement discussions have so far consisted of the U.S. seeking to scale back the limited access Canada already has to U.S. government purchasing rather than being receptive to granting Canadian beef better access to U.S. federally funded purchasing.

CCA added that there has been good exploratory discussion among the negotiating teams regarding streamlining regulatory practices to remove cumbersome procedures for cattle or beef crossing the border, but so far, there has been no concrete commitment to change.

CCA also would like to maintain dispute settlement provisions in NAFTA and improve the enforceability of NAFTA panel decisions. “The Canadian beef sector has, from time to time, relied on dispute settlement, typically under the World Trade Organization, and strengthening the NAFTA option would provide a meaningful alternative to the WTO. The outcome of these and the sunset/review issues remains unresolved, but with common ground being sought,” CCA said in its March 5 newsletter.

CCA director of government and international relations John Masswohl was on site during the first three days of the agriculture session discussions. Masswohl said, overall, round seven discussions were positive, and the hope is that progress will continue into round eight, which will be held in the U.S. in early April. Obviously, that timeline would extend the negotiations beyond the notional deadline of March 31.

Lighthizer also indicated the need to act quickly since time is running very short. On July 1, Mexico will choose a new president, and the campaign will begin in earnest next month. In addition, Ontario and Quebec have elections scheduled later this year, and the U.S. faces midterm elections in November.

“All this complicates our work,” Lighthizer said. “I fear that the longer we proceed, the more political headwinds we will feel.”

Lighthizer noted that reaching an agreement at the negotiating table is only part of the process. After an agreement is concluded, U.S. laws require additional steps before an agreement can even be considered by Congress.

“We have tried to be clear about what we hope to see in a new NAFTA,” Lighthizer noted. “We are prepared to work continuously to achieve a breakthrough. ... If the political will is there, I am certain that we have a path to a paid and successful conclusion.”

However, tensions between Mexico and the U.S. over steel concerns have been reported, as President Donald Trump made the announcement on steel and aluminum import tariffs just a day after the latest NAFTA round got underway in Mexico City, Mexico.

Mexico's Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo met with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Lighthizer during a hastily arranged visit to Washington, D.C., as U.S., Mexican and Canadian officials held the seventh round of NAFTA negotiations.

In a statement, Guajardo said they had discussed the possible U.S. import tariffs for steel as well as bilateral agreements over tomatoes and sugar.

Farmers for Free Trade hosted a joint press conference last Thursday with U.S. and Mexican farmers and producers to highlight how the free flow of agricultural products between Mexico and the U.S. supports jobs and economic growth in both countries. The press conference included the personal stories of how farmers and businesses rely on an integrated supply chain between NAFTA partners and took place on the sidelines of the NAFTA negotiations in Mexico City.

Kuehl said the organization continues to emphasize that “trade is not a zero-sum game. We win when we work together -- when we build markets together and supply chains together.” He added that NAFTA has created a strong trade bloc among the three partners that benefits each country.

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