US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross on Friday said that he hopes to launch formal talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico in about three months, setting in motion a campaign promise made by US President Donald Trump.
During his election campaign, Trump threatened to pull out of NAFTA, which he views as damaging to US workers, unless it was renegotiated to his liking and reduced the US trade deficit with Mexico.
Ross told reporters that “sometime in the next couple of weeks” he hopes to send a letter notifying Congress that the Trump administration intends to launch NAFTA negotiations in 90 days.
“That’s what triggers the beginnings of the formal process itself,” Ross said at a news conference with Mexican Minister of the Economy Ildefonso Guajardo.
A notification about NAFTA in the next two weeks would put the likely start of talks in late June or early July.
Trade between the US, Canada and Mexico has nearly quadrupled in goods since NAFTA took effect in 1994 to US$1.1 trillion last year, according to US Census Bureau data.
The deal has accelerated the integration of the three economies, with parts supply chains and commodities now crisscrossing their borders.
The 90-day period is required under the so-called “fast track” negotiating authority granted to the president by Congress. Fast-track allows only an up-or-down vote on trade deals, in order to streamline their approval and strengthen the US negotiating hand with partner countries.
Congress granted fast-track to former US president Barack Obama in 2015 when his administration was negotiating the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Unless rescinded by lawmakers, the fast-track authority is scheduled to remain in effect until July 2021.
Ross added that he was consulting with leaders of US Congress’ two trade panels, the Senate Finance Committee and the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.
Guajardo said that Mexico would be ready to start talks any time after the end of May, but would wait until the US and Canada finish their own legislative processes to prepare.
Asked whether he anticipated that NAFTA negotiations would include a border tax adjustment plan that would levy a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports, as proposed by US House Republicans, Ross said that he and the administration would need to see the full details of the proposal to pass judgement.
Speaking at a news conference in Houston on Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was open to working with the Trump administration to revise NAFTA.
The US notification period on NAFTA will also give the Trump administration time to secure confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, the nominee for US trade representative, who would take a lead role in NAFTA talks.
Lighthizer, a long-time trade lawyer for the steel industry, is scheduled for a confirmation hearing before the US Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
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