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NAFTA's fate remains unknown as trade talks approach deadline

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Photo: Shealah Craighead/Office of the President of the United States/Wikimedia Commons

The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is approaching a significant deadline on September 30.

Trade analyst Candace Sider says, "That's the date set out by Washington to deliver the text of a deal with or without Canada before making public (within 30 days) the text to the bilateral trade deal the United States struck with Mexico on August 30."

CBC trade reporter Janyce McGregor adds, "The U.S. Congress needs to see text 60 days before Trump would be authorized to sign anything with outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña ​Nieto, who leaves office on Dec. 1."

On this rapidly approaching deadline, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer says, "We're going to go ahead with Mexico. If Canada comes along now, that would be the best. If Canada comes along later, then that's what will happen. We're sort of running out of time."

But Lighthizer's threat may be hollow given former U.S. trade official Jennifer Hillman told CBC that the deal those countries reached was predicated on Canada joining and that "Whether Canada is in or out, either way, you can't get the text done by Sept. 30."

Theoretically though, if the Trump administration were to put forward a U.S.-Mexico "free trade" deal on September 30, that could also include the activation of the six-month termination clause in NAFTA. That six-month countdown would take us to March 30, 2019 (which again, hypothetically and with numerous variables still at play) could mean a scenario in which NAFTA is terminated not long prior to the October 21, 2019 federal election in Canada.

McGregor notes various possible escape hatches: Congress could stop Trump from withdrawing the United States from NAFTA, there could be a court challenge, or the U.S. Commerce Department might not impose the 25 per cent tariff on automobiles as has been threatened by Trump.

Less dramatically, it could also be that yet another publicly announced key deadline passes and that NAFTA talks continue into 2019.

Another reason the September 30 deadline might not be met is the October 1 election in Quebec.

Sider comments, "Speculation has emerged the Canadian delegation is loath to publicly accept a deal that most believe will contain concessions on access to the Canadian dairy market before the provincial election on October 1 in Quebec, where much of Canada's dairy is produced."

A little further down the road it may also be hard in an election year for Trudeau to maintain that he is committed to implementing a universal pharmacare plan if he agrees to the U.S. demand that the "data exclusivity" period for biologic drugs be extended to 10 years (two more years of patent protection in Canada would cost tens of millions of dollars a year).

Part of this political calendar and calculation is also that president-elect of Mexico, Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), will be sworn into office (as noted above) on December 1.

While there have been either contradictory or vague statements coming from AMLO and his transition team, former Mexican ambassador Jorge Guajardo has commented in The Atlantic, "Even though he has spoken favorably about NAFTA, he is not a free-trader by heart. If Trump pulls out of NAFTA, AMLO likely won't feel obligated to offer concessions in hopes of bringing him back."

And while the outgoing Mexican president wanted to entrench his "energy reforms" in NAFTA, AMLO has been publicly critical of this liberalization.

As such, depending on what is in the deal reached in August between Trump and Nieto, AMLO could object to various provisions if it's not signed by November 30, thus potentially forcing continued negotiations on the agreement.

NAFTA is part of the architecture of corporate rule and is harmful to people, the planet, democracy and the public good.

Civil society's critique of it at this juncture has been somewhat muted by movement allies who have emphasized the job displacement that would be caused by the disruption of economies that have been increasingly integrated since the deal came into force on January 1, 1994.

That doesn't make NAFTA a good deal -- it makes an omelette that can't easily be fit back into broken eggshells.

Stay tuned to see what happens in just a few days from now.

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Photo: Shealah Craighead/Office of the President of the United States/Wikimedia Commons

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