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Tough US Nafta demands send ball back into lobbyists' court

[ARLINGTON, Virginia] Lobbying efforts on the North American Free Trade Agreement faced a major test this week after the Trump administration ignored advice from US business groups and pitched proposals to radically reshape Nafta, leaving its future in doubt.

The US demands to force renegotiation of Nafta every five years and reserve the lion's share of automotive manufacturing for the United States have cast a pall over a fourth round of talks due to end Tuesday in suburban Washington.

Though they were widely expected, the aggressive US proposals were met with dismay by many officials from Mexico, Canada and US industry, who have formed a loose alliance in opposing major changes to Nafta.

By Monday, Mexico's peso hit a near five-month low with fears growing about the future of the deal underpinning US$1.2 trillion in annual trade between the three countries. Mexico sends nearly 80 per cent of its exports to the United States.

US opposition to Nafta's dispute resolution mechanisms, plans to restrict outside access to government contracts and attacks on Canadian dairy and softwood lumber producers have further stoked the grim mood among trade officials.

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Bosco de la Vega, head of Mexico's National Agricultural Council, the country's main farming lobby, said coming weeks would show whether Mexico and Canada's allies in Congress and the US private sector could push back against the proposals.

"We're going to see what the people here are made of," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the talks. "What I can guarantee you is that Mexico won't agree to a bad deal."

Officials from the two biggest US export markets have spent the months since Trump's November election victory working on US bosses and political leaders to defend Nafta, a 23-year-old accord that the president has repeatedly called a"disaster," which he blames for the loss of US manufacturing jobs.

The US Chamber of Commerce has rejected what it calls the "poison pill" plans and has been backed by other major industry groups.

But whether lobbies that Mr Trump has sought to characterise as part of the "Washington swamp" can encourage a change of heart is far from certain, especially with the president openly feuding with a number of senior Republicans in Congress.

Mr Trump has attacked Nafta throughout the talks and participants are doubtful how much influence Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexico's economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, will have on US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer when the three meet for talks on Tuesday.

Arguing that the deal has boosted Mexican manufacturing at the expense of the United States, Mr Trump points to a goods trade deficit with its southern neighbor of US$64 billion last year.

To that end, his administration is seeking to raise the amount of Nafta content in autos to 85 per cent from 62.5 per cent and secure 50 per cent of the total for the United States.

US negotiators at the talks opened up another front by proposing that Canada dismantle its system of protections for the dairy and poultry sectors, a move that Ottawa will reject, a source briefed on the matter said on Monday.


Defenders of Nafta say the cross-border integration has made the region more competitive with the rest of the world and prevented job losses to rival economies in Asia and Europe.

Ann Wilson, senior vice-president of government affairs for the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, which represents US auto parts makers, said the group was speaking to "as many levels of policymakers as possible." "We are hopeful that by providing data and analysis ... that we can find a landing zone that will allow our members to continue to thrive," said Ms Wilson. "But the proposal that I understand is on the table right now will not do that."

Moises Kalach, head of the international negotiating arm of Mexico's CCE business lobby, was confident the divisive measures did not have the support of Congress or key US employers.

"The American private sector completely supports us, they're very aligned, working with Congress, working with the governors and the Senate, and they are meeting with a lot of resonance," Mr Kalach said. "There's a lot of fighting still to do."

Jerry Dias, head of Canada's biggest private-sector union, Unifor, said the United States could not expect to extract concessions from the other two nations at minimal cost.

"Ultimately, Trump is going to get a major pushback because Canada is the number one trading partner for 30 US states," he said. "The agricultural sector of the United States will go absolutely crazy. The dairy sector will go absolutely crazy." But many are not convinced it will be enough.

"I don't think Lighthizer will do much beyond listening and nodding. I can't see a situation where (he) is ready to start negotiating," said a Canadian source familiar with the talks, noting that Mr Trump remained the biggest unknown. "We've heard time and time again that Lighthizer only has an audience of one."


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