During the long-anticipated sixth round of talks in Montreal to update NAFTA, from January 23-29, negotiators made progress in some issue areas while avoiding any major clashes that might have led to U.S. withdrawal from the existing agreement. Officials advanced discussions on digital trade, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, and technical barriers to trade to near completion while closing a chapter on anti-corruption measures.
Following the round, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer acknowledged progress in these areas, while highlighting the importance of the need to make progress on the “core issues” of greatest interest to the United States. These core issues, which could include the rules of origin for automobiles as well as other difficult issues (i.e., investment, procurement, dispute settlement and the U.S. proposal for a five-year “sunset clause” in the agreement), are ultimately what the U.S. will judge as determining the success or failure of the talks.
Despite some initial constructive engagement, however, negotiators remain far from resolving these issues. Canada responded to a few U.S. proposals during the round:
- On the rule of origin for autos, Canada reportedly proposed expanding the formula for calculating regional and national content values to include intellectual property and new technologies. Lighthizer rejected this approach in his closing remarks, finding it to be the “opposite” of U.S. interests because it would lead to less regional content than the status quo. The initial U.S. proposal would increase the regional value content for automobiles from the current 62.5 percent to 85 percent, with 50 percent reserved for U.S.-origin content.
- On investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), Canada proposed a mechanism that would exclude the U.S., while maintaining mutual protections only for Canada and Mexico. While it is unclear whether USTR will favor this approach, U.S. industry groups will likely be opposed.
- On the “sunset clause,” Canada made a counterproposal of a five-year review process for the agreement, without the threat of automatic termination.
Canada also proposed departing from a proposed rule that would require the NAFTA parties to automatically extend to one another the same level of market access for services as each commits to in future trade agreements—the so-called “MFN-forward” rule that Canada had already agreed to in TPP. Lighthizer said in his closing remarks that the proposal was “unacceptable” and referred to it as a “poison pill.”
The Trump Administration overall appears to be signaling that negotiations are likely to proceed without disruption at least through the next round, which will take place in Mexico City from February 26-March 6.
While officials initially set a target date of concluding talks by March 31, there are hints that negotiations could last beyond that date, even perhaps after Mexico’s general election on July 1. President Trump said on January 11 that he could be flexible on the timetable, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue testified to the House Agriculture Committee on February 6 that he expects talks to be extended beyond March but completed before the end of the year.
Members of Congress representing agricultural interests continue to press the Trump administration to conclude an agreement that will “do no harm” to the U.S. agricultural sector, which has benefitted from expanded access to Canada and Mexico under NAFTA. These Members would prefer to see the negotiations extended beyond March, provided that the overall result remains favorable for U.S. agribusiness.