MONTREAL — Here's a summary of where the NAFTA talks stand after a week-long round in Montreal.
Chapters: A chapter on anti-corruption measures was concluded in Montreal. Officials from one country say chapters on telecommunications and digital trade are more than 90 per cent done.
Autos: The countries have begun a real dialogue. Previous rounds saw acrimony over a U.S. demand that 85 per cent of a car's parts be North American, and 50 per cent be American to avoid a tariff — a major increase from the current 62.5 per cent requirement. Some in the auto sector call it so unworkable that it would induce companies to move to Asia and pay the import tariff. At this round, Canada proposed a major overhaul of the formula: include the value of intellectual property in the calculation, instead of just parts, thereby inflating U.S. numbers while being less disruptive to the industry. The countries are now analyzing how such formulas could work, and the idea has been turned over to political decision-makers in the U.S. and Mexico for their input.
Chapter 11: The Americans want it to be voluntary for countries to participate in the investor-state system, which allows companies to sue countries for discriminatory treatment. The U.S. has suggested it might want to opt out of the system, arguing that it provides assurance for investors outsourcing operations to Mexico. This is not to be confused with the Chapter 19 system, which handles fights over punitive duties, on cases such as softwood lumber; the Americans want Chapter 19 gone entirely. At this round, the Chapter 19 irritant was largely avoided. But the Canadians and Mexicans worked out a proposal on Chapter 11. Their idea would essentially sideline the Americans, and create a new investor-state system that applies only to them. Under the Canadian proposal, backed by Mexico, the U.S. would be prevented from participating in or developing the rules of the new system: "We basically said to them, 'If you want to opt out that's fine, you're gone,''' one non-American said.
Sunset clause: The U.S. has proposed a clause that would automatically terminate NAFTA every five years, unless renewed by all three countries. The other countries called that unworkable, and a constant chill on investment, akin to placing an automatic-divorce clause in a marriage license. In November, the Mexicans proposed turning this termination clause into a review clause — meaning it would force regular reviews into how the agreement is working, but not threaten automatic termination. They pointed out that NAFTA already has a termination clause, which countries are free to use. The Canadians offered new ideas at this round for how the review clause might work. One suggestion is for NAFTA's central body, the Free Trade Commission, to produce regular updates on how the agreement is working.
Dairy: The U.S. wants to end, within a decade, Canada's supply-management system, which limits imports on milk, cheese and poultry, and sets minimum prices. The U.S. also wants to end a special program, known as Class 7, which lets Canadian producers sell certain cheese-making proteins at lower worldwide prices, squeezing out some imports from Americans who have an excess supply. This politically sensitive file, which touches rural ridings especially in Central Canada, tends to get pushed down to the wire in trade negotiations. Sources say Canada has not made any counter-offers in Montreal.
Labour: In the U.S., Democrats have just published a letter urging their country to demand far higher labour standards from Mexico. Mexico says it agrees with higher standards, with new labour and environmental chapters in NAFTA; new worker protections; tougher enforcement of existing laws; and combating imports tied to child labour. It disputes the suggestion that it's avoiding the issue. But it does say that NAFTA is an inappropriate place to push for certain wage guarantees, as wages are a function of myriad domestic economic conditions. Canada has also proposed ending right-to-work laws in the U.S., viewed as a non-starter by the Americans.
Buy American: The U.S. wants limits on how many public contracts can be won by its free-trade neighbours. In October, it proposed limiting Canada and Mexico to one dollar of contracts for every dollar in contracts granted by Canada and Mexico. The other countries declared this a non-starter. Sources say there was no major engagement on this at the Montreal round.
What's next: Future talks are slated for late February in Mexico, then for Washington a month later. It's unclear what happens next. Mexico has a presidential election in July, the next president gets sworn in in December, and the U.S. will have national congressional elections in the fall. U.S. President Donald Trump has a decision to make by about March: start cancelling NAFTA, keep negotiating or pause until the fall. The new engagement at this round has some insiders hoping he might avoid cancelling it.