Trudeau gets warm welcome in Washington, but goodwill masks NAFTA nervousness


WASHINGTON — Key sticking points in the ongoing NAFTA negotiations came up Wednesday in a meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a powerful group of American lawmakers, though they all expressed hope of clearing those hurdles so the countries might reach a deal.

Lawmakers stood and cheered when Trudeau both arrived and departed the Capitol Hill meeting, but there was no glossing over impediments to a potential deal.

Meeting participants said the prime minister defended Canada’s supply management system while being pressed to allow more access to American dairy imports. He was also urged to allow freer trade in cultural products, and to drop the exemptions in the current agreement.

Some U.S. lawmakers are also alarmed by the hardline early positions taken by their own country’s negotiators, which different business groups have called unrealistic with some warning they could sabotage the talks.

The prime minister was on Capitol Hill with dozens of members of the powerful House of Representatives committee that oversees trade negotiations. He was scheduled to meet later in the day with President Donald Trump at the White House.

“The U.S. sells more to Canada than it does to China, Japan and the U.K. — combined,” Trudeau said in his opening remarks. “We are already your biggest customer.”

The visit occurs amid early signs of trouble in the NAFTA negotiations, with big business groups now expressing fear the quarter-century-old deal could disappear.

Senior members of both major U.S. parties echoed his view that trade with Canada is mutually beneficial.

But there were also signs of discord: the top Republican says he wants to pry open Canada’s dairy sector, the top Democrat wants to see free trade in cultural products and some progressive lawmakers were outside with anti-NAFTA protesters.

Committee chairman Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, mentioned dairy access; customs barriers; and intellectual property as areas that need to improve.

“America and Canada are great allies. We share the world’s longest international border and a remarkably successful and mutually beneficial trading relationship through NAFTA. But no relationship is without its challenges,” Brady said.

Brady asked the prime minister to support meaningful change, aimed at more open trade, and added that he’s committed to successful negotiations: “When North America wins, America wins.”

A Democratic lawmaker said after the meeting that Trudeau maintained his commitment to Canada’s supply-management system and pointed out the fact that the U.S. maintains a basket of support programs for its own agricultural industries.

But Sander Levin credited Trudeau’s progressive trade policies on labour, the environment and gender rights. He said stronger labour protections will be essential in winning minimal Democratic support that might give an eventual deal the necessary votes to win passage in Congress. Officials within the Canadian government say this is one of the objectives of their so-called progressive trade agenda, one overlooked by critics at home who might not appreciate the need to win some votes from centre-left U.S. lawmakers to ratify the deal.

That partisan uncertainty was underscored Wednesday as Democrats called for open hearings on NAFTA while some party members protested against the agreement on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, the House committee’s top Democrat asked Trudeau to open up the trade in culture — a historically sensitive area in Canada-U.S. trade relations. Richard Neal said he wants to see “our cultural industries go forward with non-discriminatory access to the Canadian … markets that Canadian creators have here in the United States.”

Trudeau’s predecessor, former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, was scheduled to add his voice to the debate later Wednesday in a NAFTA forum where his allies at home believe he could have a lasting impact.

Erin O’Toole, the Tory foreign affairs critic, says Harper is an ardent free trader whose voice will help convince congressional and business leaders to preserve and update NAFTA, rather than tear it up, as Trump has repeatedly threatened.

It also doesn’t hurt that Harper will be sharing a stage with former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was arguably the pre-Trump era’s most right-leaning American populist politician.

“Mr. Harper is quite well regarded within trade circles. If he can use that platform he has as a former prime minister to remind people in Washington to apply pressure on the White House, I think it’s good,” O’Toole said.

“Mr. Gingrich is still a voice that gets a lot of attention, especially in Washington. That is good because we need more and more voices saying, ‘We need NAFTA, we can’t step away.'”

Other prominent Canadian conservatives have publicly aligned themselves with Trudeau Liberals in a bipartisan effort to preserve Canada’s open trading relationship with the United States.

They include Rona Ambrose, the former interim Conservative leader, and former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, who gave an unprecedented briefing to Trudeau’s cabinet on Trump, who is a friend.

— With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press