US pushes NAFTA talks pace, warns of political headwinds

Tuesday, 2018-03-06 09:15:15
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Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer take part in a joint news conference on the closing of the seventh round of NAFTA talks in Mexico City, Mexico March 5, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)
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Mexican and US officials pushed on March 5 to speed up NAFTA negotiations, with the United States floating the idea of reaching an agreement "in principle" in coming weeks to avoid political headwinds later this year.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, showing impatience at the slow pace of the talks, said Mexico's presidential election and the looming expiry of a congressional negotiating authorization in July put the onus on the United States, Mexico and Canada to come up with a plan soon.

"We probably have a month, or a month and a half, or something to get an agreement in principle," Lighthizer told reporters at the conclusion of a seventh round of talks to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement in Mexico City.

He was speaking after meeting Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland for a joint event marked by a more cordial mood than in previous rounds, despite major disagreements over US President Donald Trump's plan to impose steel tariffs.

Trump has threatened to dump NAFTA unless it boosts US manufacturing and employment, arguing the 1994 accord has caused the migration of jobs and factories southward to lower-cost Mexico.

Guajardo told reporters the three countries aimed to hold lower-level discussions on NAFTA over the next five weeks before an eighth round, probably in early April.

During that period, he and his two counterparts also aimed to meet to narrow differences on the most complex issues in the talks, which include agreeing on new auto content rules, a dispute-resolution mechanism and agricultural market access.

Lighthizer said time to rework the deal was running "very short" and again raised the possibility of the United States pursuing bilateral deals with its partners - albeit stressing that his government would prefer a three-way agreement.

The US trade promotion authority, or TPA, is authorized by Congress and is needed to implement legislation for new trade agreements such as the renegotiation of NAFTA. The TPA expires on July 1 and analysts expect it to be extended.

The United States also holds congressional elections in November.