NAFTA Talks Conclude in Montreal With Signs of Progress and Risk

Posted January 29, 2018 1:13 p.m. EST

MONTREAL — The sixth round of talks over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement concluded Monday, with significant gaps remaining among the three countries, but dissipating concerns about the United States withdrawing from the pact.

The United States has come to the brink of withdrawing from NAFTA several times in the past year. But after six months of contentious negotiations, the consensus in Montreal during last week’s talks was one of cautious optimism, as the three countries began to finally discuss potential solutions to some of their thorniest conflicts.

Still, Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, appeared to throw some cold water on the progress, calling proposals offered by Mexico and Canada inadequate and, in some cases, contrary to U.S. demands. In a statement at the conclusion of the talks, Lighthizer was particularly critical of Canada, emphasizing that the ideas put forward by its government had fallen short of what the United States had hoped to see from its neighbor to the North.

“This round was a step forward,” Lighthizer said Monday. “But we are progressing very slowly. We owe it to our citizens who are operating in a state of uncertainty to progress much faster.”

Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, the Mexican economic secretary, said in a statement Monday that the three countries were at “a better moment in this negotiation process.” He said that the “progress made so far put us on the right track to create landing zones to conclude this process.”

Talks now appear likely to extend beyond March, which could bring the negotiation into riskier territory as all three countries head into election season. The next official round has been scheduled for Mexico at the end of February.

The 24-year-old trade pact, negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, was the most comprehensive free trade agreement of its age. It spurred trade between the three countries by reducing Mexico’s high tariffs on goods from the United States and Canada. But, as President Donald Trump has often highlighted, it also incentivized companies to shift labor-intensive manufacturing to Mexico.

Trump came into office last year with an ambitious trade agenda, including a promise to rework the pact, or scrap it altogether.