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Latest Nafta talks said to near end without big breakthrough

[MEXICO CITY] The latest Nafta talks are nearing conclusion without a major breakthrough or agreements on even the least-contentious topics, officials familiar with the negotiations say, fueling doubts among observers that a deal can be reached this year.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is scheduled to speak publicly alongside Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland Tuesday to conclude the second round of talks toward a new North American Free Trade Agreement. Their appearance will cap a five-day session in Mexico City.

While negotiators have made some progress, they have yet to agree on any major contentious issue and are far from a deal on individual Nafta chapters, the officials said, asking not to be identified discussing private matters. On some topics, discussion has been verbal with no specific text proposals submitted, they said.

The talks came after US President Donald Trump threatened outright withdrawal from the agreement. While slow progress is normal in most trade negotiations, the nations have been seeking an unusually quick timeline for Nafta, and officials expressed doubt a deal could be reached by the target date of December. That sentiment is shared by many observers and stakeholders who say the US has been slow in detailing its actual demands."They can't possibly finish. The Americans haven't started negotiating yet," said Peter Clark, a trade strategist and former Canadian official. Jerry Dias, a Canadian labor leader, said he'd "be shocked if it gets done before Christmas." Mr Clark said the earliest possible date for a deal is February or March, and even then it would likely be an agreement-in-principle that wouldn't be finalized until after Mexican and US elections. "It's not really a negotiation. What you have is a president who says he's been robbed for years," Mr Clark said. "He wants to break a contract without any penalty." Juan Pablo Castanon, the leader of the Mexican business chamber known as CCE, told reporters on Monday there had been progress on topics including small and medium businesses, trade facilitation and telecommunications, while others - including autos and labor - were less advanced. The next talks, expected for Ottawa later this month, will be key to knowing if a deal can be reached this year, Mr Castanon said.

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