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Playing hardball at NAFTA table

BY LETHBRIDGE HERALD OPINON ON OCTOBER 18, 2017.
U.S. demands increasingly strict

As the Major League Baseball playoffs continue, the United States is playing a little hardball of its own during NAFTA negotiations with Canada and Mexico.

An analysis of the U.S.’s ever-increasing demands at the negotiating table raises the question of whether the Americans grasp the concept of compromise. Perhaps the U.S. negotiators prepared for the talks by reading Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” or more likely, they boned up by watching some classic Abbott and Costello skits such as “Have you got two tens for a five?”

The recently begun fourth round of talks was forecast to be the most contentious yet, and the U.S. wasted little time before firing several salvos over the bow of Canada’s NAFTA negotiating team. The U.S. ended the previous round by proposing much stricter “Buy American” rules, then followed that up with a tough “Made in America” requirement for the auto manufacturing sector, with virtually no grace period to allow companies time to adjust.

The demands on automakers prompted talk that either the Americans were trying to deliberately sabotage the talks or were hoping to shock the other parties into making concessions.

In a Canadian Press story Friday, Flavio Volpe, a Canadian auto-parts representative, suggested it was the latter case. “My instinct is this is, ‘Art of the Deal.’ There are those who think these are poison pills designed … to get the partners to leave the table.”

Whichever it is, the U.S. isn’t backing down on its approach. In fact, it’s continuing to drop more bombshells on Canadian negotiators. Now the U.S. is demanding an end to the supply management system for dairy, chicken, eggs and turkey.

The U.S. has made its position very clear – it wants strong barriers to protect its own trade sectors while calling for the elimination of similar barriers in those same sectors in Canada. The Americans want to hang onto their own cake while demanding Canada’s cake, too.

Such tactics might have worked for Bud Abbott in his dealings with the gullible Lou Costello, but let’s hope they prove less effective against Canadian negotiators.

Earlier this month, during a visit to Washington where he met with Trump, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that getting a new NAFTA deal wasn’t going to be easy.

“… we are ready for anything and we will continue to work diligently to protect Canadian interests, to stand up for jobs, and look for opportunities for Canadian business and citizens of all of our friends and neighbour countries to do well,” Trudeau said.

Eric Miller, a Canadian consultant who advises Industry Canada, noted back in July that Canada would “have to fight hard for issues it cares about.”

That has certainly become evident as the NAFTA talks proceed. The Hamilton Spectator, in an August editorial, declared “No deal is better than a bad deal.” That seems like good advice. As important a trading partner as the United States is, Canada would not be doing itself any favours by allowing itself to be bamboozled or bullied into a deal that lets the U.S. take advantage of us. That would be bad for the Canadian economy and bad for Canadians.

Baseball might be the Americans’ game, but Canada’s negotiators need to show their U.S. counterparts that we can play hardball, too. By the time this game is over, we’ll see who’s on first.

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