Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Want Clues on the State of NAFTA? Watch America's Trade 'Curmudgeon' Monday

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Want Clues on the State of NAFTA? Watch America's Trade 'Curmudgeon' Monday

Article excerpt

NAFTA talks leave decisions for U.S. politicians


MONTREAL - For a better sense of where the NAFTA negotiations stand, and whether the continental trade pact risks being imminently whacked by a cancellation notice from U.S. President Donald Trump, watch his trade czar Monday.

Robert Lighthizer, Canada's Chrystia Freeland and Ildefonso Guajardo of Mexico are in Montreal for meetings and a rare group event following a week-long negotiating round that insiders hailed as producing slivers of optimism.

Lighthizer's reaction is now key.

His negotiators have handed him the details of this past round, and sought guidance. His boss, the president of the United States, keeps lobbing the occasional threat to cancel NAFTA. And big political decisions lie ahead, with just eight weeks left in the current schedule of talks.

American lawmakers attending this round spoke with Lighthizer and offered a vague preview of what he might say. They suggested he shared others' increased sense of optimism -- but might couch it in crotchety language.

"He says he's a curmudgeon," Dave Reichert, the Republican chair of a congressional trade committee, told reporters Sunday.

"So when he shows optimism it may not be, you know, readily visible to the rest of us ... because we have difficulty sometimes discerning that ourselves," said Reichert.

"He recognizes there's a great deal of work to be done, but he's hopeful."

Important decisions about NAFTA's future are now in the hands of Trump's administration. American negotiators have asked their political decision-makers how to respond after major discussions about autos, dispute resolution and a five-year review clause.

This round represented a new phase of the negotiations.

It featured a new back-and-forth dialogue on autos and other major sticking points. Sources close to the talks say lengthy conversations were prompted by ideas Canada put on the table -- including about three hours of talks over two days about the autos proposal.

American negotiators asked questions, listened, and, according to sources from one country, replied: "We have to look at (these proposals) in further detail and seek political guidance."

Earlier rounds had seen scant engagement on the most serious files. After the U.S. made proposals that shocked the other countries, those parties responded by insulting the U.S. ideas and even devoted one round to describing reasons why the American proposal on cars was so impractical.

This round was an early example of countries seeking a pathway to solutions for the difficult problems -- without having the talks collapse.

"There's an optimism," Reichert said, echoing sentiments frequently heard in Montreal.

"I don't want to get overly optimistic with you -- but there's just an air of optimism."

Some developments from the week in Montreal:

--On autos, Canada suggested new ways to calculate whether a car counts as American. …

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