- Two top US trade officials offered warnings about the future of NAFTA talks on Tuesday.
- US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said a deal must be reached in the next two weeks – or approval by the current Congress would be “on thin ice.”
- US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the “political calendar makes it difficult” absent a deal soon.
Two top US trade officials warned that negotiations on a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement need to wrap up soon – or the countries in the deal could risk facing insurmountable headwinds.
Both US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said NAFTA negotiations must be completed over the next few weeks for Congress to approve a new deal before the midterm elections.
“I believe if we don’t get it done in the next week or two, we’ll be on thin ice,” Lighthizer said at a Chamber of Commerce event.
Negotiations to rework NAFTA began days after President Donald Trump took office, when he signed an executive order. Formal talks among the agreement’s members – the US, Canada, and Mexico – kicked off in August.
While talks among the three countries are ongoing, the looming deadline is purely the fault of the US. The Trump administration is using Trade Promotion Authority to spearhead any deal through Congress, allowing it to receive approval with only a majority vote in both chambers. But TPA also imposes strict timing rules, and approval already looks tough ahead of the 2018 midterm elections that are set to change the makeup of the legislature.
Lighthizer said that waiting for a new Congress could be risky because the new members could “try to open it up.” This would endanger the progress made by the three countries.
Ross, also speaking Tuesday at the Milken Conference, said unless any agreement comes together in the next few weeks, “it will take until fall, and who know what happens then.”
He also highlighted the political uncertainty that surrounds the Mexican presidential election in July.
“As you move toward the middle of year, the political calendar makes it difficult,” Ross said.
Recent comments from NAFTA negotiators have been encouraging, but the outstanding issues they must resolve are among the thorniest in the whole agreement. Ross acknowledged this reality on Tuesday.
“NAFTA, like any trade negotiation, started with easier topics then deals with more difficult, more complex, more important ones,” Ross said. “We’re now in that later on phase.”
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