News / Canada

Trump’s trade chief says NAFTA deal ‘in reach’; Canada’s top negotiator not so sure

Meanwhile, Donald Trump on Tuesday again slammed Canada on trade, saying: “Canada has treated us very, very unfairly when it comes to lumber and timber. Very unfairly.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland talks with United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, right, and Mexico's Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarrea during the sixth round of NAFTA negotiations in Montreal, Monday, January 29, 2018.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland talks with United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, right, and Mexico's Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarrea during the sixth round of NAFTA negotiations in Montreal, Monday, January 29, 2018.

WASHINGTON—In a significant departure from his previous public comments, Donald Trump’s trade chief expressed confidence Tuesday that the U.S. can reach a North American Free Trade Agreement deal with Canada and Mexico.

“I think we’re making progress on NAFTA. There was a lot of anxiety at one point as to whether or not we’d be in a position where we’d have to withdraw in order to get a good agreement,” Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, told the president and senators at a White House meeting.

He continued: “I think we’re making real headway.”

Lighthizer, who has criticized Canada’s negotiating posture much more frequently than he has criticized Mexico’s, specified that the progress is occurring “particularly with respect to the Mexicans,” and he said “we have a number of issues that we still have to work our way through.”

But he said he is “hopeful” they can find a deal Trump, Republican legislators and Democrats will all find acceptable.

“I think that’s very much in reach. It’s something that we can do,” he said.

It wasn’t all upbeat: Lighthizer’s remarks came after Trump criticized Canada for the second consecutive day. But his comments were the latest to suggest the Trump administration has generally brightened on the prospects of modernizing, rather than terminating, a deal the president has described as the worst in world history.

Lighthizer had not been nearly so positive in his previous public statements. He also cited “real headway” at the end of the negotiating round in Montreal last month, but he did not say a deal was in reach, and he said: “This round was a step forward, but we are progressing very slowly.”

Canada's chief NAFTA negotiator Steve Verheul, centre, during NAFTA negotiations in Montreal on Jan. 25.

RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's chief NAFTA negotiator Steve Verheul, centre, during NAFTA negotiations in Montreal on Jan. 25.

Canada’s chief NAFTA negotiator, Steve Verheul, offered a more pessimistic assessment on Tuesday, telling an Ottawa trade conference that progress has been limited on account of a negotiation schedule moving “a bit too fast” and because U.S. negotiators have been given limited flexibility, from “the top,” even on “easy” matters.

Verheul was sharply critical of the “Buy American” proposal that would limit Canadian access to U.S. government contracts, saying it was the worst proposal ever tabled by the U.S. in a trade negotiation.

On Monday, Trump vaguely said Canada “does not treat us right in terms of the farming and the crossing the borders.” He was more specific on Tuesday.

“Canada has treated us very, very unfairly when it comes to lumber and timber. Very unfairly. So we have to understand that. You know, it’s not just one thing or another. Canada has been very tough on this country when it comes to timber, lumber, and other things,” he said. He said it is hard to export to Canada “if you are a farmer up in Wisconsin and other places.”

Those are familiar complaints. Trump’s administration last year slapped tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, continuing a decades-old dispute. Trump alleged in April that Canada was hurting Wisconsin farmers by lowering its own prices on ultrafiltered milk, thus rendering American imports less competitive.

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson pushed back on Tuesday. He told Trump: “The fact of that matter is, Mr. President, Wisconsin operates a trade surplus with both Canada and Mexico, because we not only export manufacturing products but also agricultural products. And trade works very well for Wisconsin.”

The next round of negotiations is scheduled to begin in late February in Mexico City. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is visiting Washington on Wednesday to meet with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. senators.

More on Metronews.ca