USTR Robert Lighthizer hopeful for breakthrough on NAFTA renegotiation

Trump administration nearing deal with Mexico on revised NAFTA — but issues with Canada remain

For four straight weeks, US trade czar Robert Lighthizer and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo have held bilateral negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Canada has been absent from the bargaining table.

The end of the tariff exclusions strained relationships with Canada, Mexico and the European Union, which responded with retaliatory tariffs on selected USA goods.

Trump appeared to feed that belief during a televised cabinet meeting in Washington on Thursday - on the one-year anniversary of the start of NAFTA's renegotiation.

During a televised cabinet meeting Thursday, the US president said his administration isn't negotiating with Canada right now, before adding that its tariffs are too high and barriers too strong.

Trump's trade negotiators this week have been meeting with senior Mexican officials in Washington, and sources familiar with the discussions say the two sides have largely agreed to new rules on auto trade - a top priority for the White House - that could boost investment in the US and curb a flight of domestic production and jobs to Mexico.

In recent comments, Trump administration officials have said NAFTA could remain a trilateral deal with an overall agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

However, . Mexico's economy minister has suggested there's still work to be done before an agreement could be reached. "NAFTA will continue because the power in the U.S. Senate is very strong in commercial decisions, and governors also have a big influence".

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United States officials have indicated that if the deal can be agreed by the end of August it would be possible to win congressional approval for the new NAFTA before Mexico's President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes office December 1.

Even if Canada signs on by month's end and there's a three-way preliminary agreement, in the U.S., that would only begin a lengthy process that includes a period of public review and economic assessment by the U.S. International Trade Commission. Lighthizer told the president he prefers to negotiate the trade deals one country at a time.

Trade negotiators have sounded optimistic in recent weeks.

Industry officials said on Thursday that the administration still has not agreed to remove the threat of "Section 232" tariffs on vehicles built at new plants nor specified whether passenger vehicles that do not comply with the rules would face a higher tariff than the current 2.5 percent.

The understanding with Mexico would raise the regional-content level to 70 percent or higher and set a similar rule of origin for steel and aluminum in vehicles. The key issues the USA and Mexico are working on include what percentage of auto industry components need to be made in North America to avoid tariffs, and how many cars and trucks need to be made in factories paying higher wages.

But some observers have argued Canada has been frozen out of critical NAFTA negotiations and could eventually be forced to accept a deal reached between its continental partners. "It would be political gold going into the midterms", he said.

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