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Canada taps veteran negotiator to drive talks on NAFTA

U.S. Senate also confirms Trump's pick as Trade Representative


Ottawa | Reuters –– Canada’s senior negotiator at talks to renew NAFTA will be the official who worked for years to push through a major free trade deal with Europe, two sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Steve Verheul faces another challenge as he deals with the U.S., which is threatening to walk away from the three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement unless major changes are made. The talks, which will also include Mexico, are due to start later this year.

“He will play a significant and instrumental role in handling and managing any future negotiations,” said one of the sources, who requested anonymity because the news had not been announced yet.

The development was previously reported by the iPolitics website.

Verheul is a career bureaucrat. At certain points during the talks, Canada will most likely be represented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, said the sources.

Verheul enjoyed a close working relationship last year with Freeland — who was then trade minister — as they strained to seal the pact with the European Union, which at one stage looked close to collapse.

Freeland is now in overall charge of ties with the U.S. She has praised Verheul several times in public.

The talks on the EU trade deal were started by Canada’s Conservative government in 2009. Former trade minister Ed Fast, who worked with Verheul for years, described him as a brilliant tactician.

“He has the ability to remain calm under trying circumstances… he is incredibly patient,” Fast said in a phone interview.

The negotiations are crucial for Canada, which sends 75 per cent of its goods exports to the U.S.

The Canadian government also intends to send a top trade bureaucrat to Washington to serve as the deputy head of the embassy, starting in September, the sources said.

Kirsten Hillman, currently in charge of trade policy at the foreign ministry, was Canada’s chief negotiator at talks on the proposed 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership pact.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the treaty in late January. The remaining 11 nations met last week to discuss ways of reviving the agreement.

“Do no harm”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed veteran trade lawyer Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative by an 82-14 vote.

The Trump administration has had to wait for Lighthizer to be in place before triggering the formal process to begin renegotiating NAFTA. It was not immediately clear when the White House would begin that process.

Some Democrats, while critical of Trump’s own views on trade, said they were confident Lighthizer, who served in the Reagan administration as deputy U.S. Trade Representative, would work to help U.S. workers.

Lighthizer’s approval came despite the objections of two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who said they were worried Lighthizer did not appreciate NAFTA’s benefits.

Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and voted in favor of Lighthizer’s nomination, also urged the incoming trade representative to be careful not to put at risk the gains NAFTA has brought.

“There are definitely opportunities to update and improve NAFTA,” Hatch said. “But it is important that the administration follow the spirit of the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm.”

— David Ljunggren is a Reuters political correspondent based in Ottawa. Includes files from Reuters by Jason Lange and Lindsay Dunsmuir.

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