Trudeau to tell Trump: We’re not your problem at NAFTA

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks Aug. 23, 2017 at a Montreal charity event. (PM.gc.ca)

Ottawa | Reuters — When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets President Donald Trump on Wednesday, he will try to persuade the U.S. leader to focus on Mexico as a source of potential problems at talks to update NAFTA.

Although Trudeau officials were confident Trump would mostly target Mexico as the three nations started to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, Washington has slapped duties on Canadian Bombardier airliners and lumber exports in recent months and talked tough on dairy and wine.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Trudeau would “explain really clearly to the President… that Canada is not America’s problem”.

Freeland, who says Canada buys more from the U.S. than China, Britain and Japan combined, told CTV television on Sunday that Trudeau’s message to Trump at their White House meeting would be “We are your biggest client.”

Trump has threatened to scrap the 1994 pact unless changes are made to address issues such as a $64 billion deficit with Mexico. Negotiators start the fourth of seven planned rounds of talks near Washington on Wednesday.

Freeland describes the U.S. administration as the most protectionist since the 1930s while noting the U.S. runs a surplus in the trade of goods and services with Canada.

Canada has so far shunned confrontation with Washington, stressing instead the merits of NAFTA and free trade. By no means everyone south of the border is convinced.

Chris Sands, a professor at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Canada’s problems marked “a new era of tough love” with Washington.

“It turns out Trump is an economic nationalist… and it’s come as a bit of a surprise to the Canadians that they have been so much on the hot seat,” he said.

Trudeau officials deny Trump is targeting Canada as part of the NAFTA talks, saying the airliner and softwood disputes have been rumbling on for years.

Mexico has been more assertive with Washington, talking openly about abandoning NAFTA if need be or slashing imports of U.S. grain.

Andres Rozental, a former Mexican deputy foreign minister involved in the original NAFTA talks, said Ottawa had assumed traditionally close ties with the U.S. would insulate them from problems with NAFTA.

“The Canadians have been jolted into the realities of Trumpland,” he said. “They have now realized that Trump doesn’t follow the mould and that there is no such special relationship.”

The fourth round of NAFTA talks has been prolonged until Oct. 17, two sources in Mexico said Tuesday, as negotiators gathering in Washington were expected to start tackling difficult issues.

The round of talks due to begin Wednesday is expected to include discussions about including quotas for U.S. content in autos — a major bone of contention for Mexico, Canada and many companies.

— David Ljunggren is a political correspondent for Reuters in Ottawa; additional reporting by Dave Graham and Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City.

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