WASHINGTON — A well-connected U.S. congressman is calling for the United States to work out a one-on-one trade deal with Canada instead of updating the three-party North American Free Trade Agreement, citing economic differences within the region.
Chris Collins is a trade-skeptical Republican from New York state who happened to be congressional liaison between lawmakers and Donald Trump's presidential transition team. He was on the transition's executive committee and was an early Trump supporter.
He made it clear Monday that his preference for breaking up NAFTA into separate parts was not the position of the incoming administration and said he was awaiting details on the Trump White House's trade policies.
But he said the northern and southern U.S. neighbours don't belong in the same trade pact. While he has opposed other trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is critical of NAFTA, he says he has no problem with auto-manufacturing across the northern border.
''Our relationship with Canada has nothing to do with our relationship with Mexico,'' he told CNN.
''They should not be mixed together. Canadians pay the same wages. They treat their workers with respect. They respect the environment. ... We should have a bilateral relationship with Canada. Then let's go talk about our relationship with Mexico ... Mexico and Canada have nothing similar when it comes to how they treat (workers).''
Asked whether this was Trump's position, he replied: ''That's my opinion — not speaking for the administration.'' Asked what the administration position is, he replied: ''I don't believe we've heard exactly what that is yet.''
Canada and the U.S. actually have a three-decade-old deal that was the precursor to NAFTA. However, trade experts say it's badly out of date and its status would be legally unclear, should Trump happen to withdraw from NAFTA.
The incoming administration has said it wants to renegotiate NAFTA, or cancel it. On Monday, a White House spokesman said Trump will have meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico's president over the next 30 days or so.
The Canadian government has signalled a readiness to have one-on-one talks, should Trump want them.
David MacNaughton, Canada's ambassador to Washington, said Canada's interests are the key issue.
"We will co-operate on trilateral matters when it's in our interest and we'll be looking to do things that are in our interest bilaterally," he said Monday. "Some of them may be within NAFTA and some of them may not be."
A former Bush-era trade secretary has urged the parties to save the trilateral pact.
Robert Zoellick said breaking up the NAFTA zone would be a strategic setback for North America — and he encourages Canada and Mexico to work together, even by sharing information and intelligence during trade talks.
"I've heard some Canadian voices say, 'Hey, remember, we've got the Canada free trade agreement. If you lose NAFTA, we've still got one — (and it's) back to 1988,'" the former U.S. trade representative told a panel discussion last week at Washington's Wilson Center.
"I think that would be deeply unfortunate."