NAFTA talks progress but pace is too slow

NAFTA talks progress but pace is too slow
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Trade leaders with the United States, Canada and Mexico said on Monday they made progress in updating the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the sixth round of talks concluded in Montreal.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerChinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead Trump says no discussion of extending deadline in Chinese trade talks MORE said the NAFTA discussions must move at a faster clip if the trading partners want to alleviate uncertainty and seal a deal.

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"We finally began to discuss the core issues, so this round was a step forward," Lighthizer told reporters at the end of the weeklong round of talks in Montreal.

"But we are progressing very slowly,” Lighthizer said in the closing press conference. 

Talks among the three trading partners are set to continue in Mexico City in late February or early March. There are plans for an eighth and possibly final round in Washington, D.C., in the spring, although there was chatter last week that talks would continue deeper into the year. 

"Some real headway was made here today,” Lighthizer said. “We’re committed to moving forward."

Lighthizer said he hoped for "major breakthroughs" between now and the seventh round in Mexico City.

Ildefonso Guajardo, Mexico's economy minister, said that “for the next round, we will still have substantial challenges to overcome."

"Yet the progress made so far puts us on the right track to create landing zones to conclude the negotiation soon," Guajardo said. 

Yet tensions remained among the nations trying to update the 1994 pact.

Lighthizer torched Ottawa’s decision to file a a wide-ranging World Trade Organization case challenging U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty measures.

He called the action “unprecedented” and said it “constitutes a massive attack on all of our trade laws.”

“Of course, we view this case as frivolous, but it does make one wonder if all parties are truly committed to mutually beneficial trade," Lighthizer said. 

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who said the case is primarily about the steep duties the U.S. slapped on Canada's softwood lumber industry, told reporters that "I don’t think I need to ever defend Canada’s actions when it comes to protecting our workers and our industry."

Freeland said she hoped the United States would come to the negotiating table on softwood lumber, which is a separate issue from the NAFTA talks. 

Lighthizer also criticized several of the proposals Canada put forward during the talks and pushed back against any suggestion that the United States is coming down too hard on its northern neighbor. 

“I think there is some misunderstanding here that the United States is somehow being unfair in these negotiations and that is not the case,” Lighthizer said.

He also said that Canada’s proposals on autos among other issues would steer trade toward China, a country that the Trump administration has both praised and blamed for growing U.S. trade deficits.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE has called the 1994 pact a disaster that hurt American workers.

Trump is expected to address trade in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, although it is unknown whether he will speak in broader terms or focus on the future of deals like NAFTA.

Last week Trump said in an interview on CNBC from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he thought the three nations have a "good chance" to finish NAFTA "but we’ll see what happens.”