The third round of lightning talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement wrapped up Wednesday in Ottawa as negotiators representing the U.S., Mexico and Canada hailed progress in the ongoing rehaul of the major trade deal.
"We are making solid headway on bread and butter issues," host and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said at the end of five days of negotiations. She also cited "astonishing progress" on "a number of the more technical but really important issues."
Her counterparts, Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, were also positive about the results and the next round of talks, scheduled for Oct. 11-15 in Washington, D.C.
The Trump administration has been criticized by Canadian and Mexican officials for not presenting some of the most contentious issues in NAFTA, including content rules of origin.
“There is an enormous amount of work still to be done, including some very difficult and contentious issues,” Lighthizer said. “Staff are working at a pace that is unheard of (in trade negotiations) ... and any suggestion that we’re not operating beyond a normal pace is just flat wrong.”
Lighthizer said the United States would “hopefully” present draft text by the next round on the thorny issue of rules of origin, which outlines how much of a product needs to originate in a NAFTA country, and on a dispute settlement mechanism.
“We will have substantial challenges to overcome,” echoed Guajardo. “We have the ambition, we have the strength to try to move forward with a view to closing a negotiation but no one can assure with total certainty that we will be able to do it.”
Observers, however, said there was pessimism among participants at a reception held Tuesday night for stakeholders and negotiators in Ottawa.
"The universal view is that this is going down in stunning glory," international trade lawyer Dan Ujczo said, according to the Canadian Press. "In that room of 250 people, I didn't hear one positive comment about what was happening in these negotiations."
"Everything the U.S. is adding are those types of measures that will restrict trade," he added, noting that stakeholders are bracing themselves for the demise of NAFTA while those who made investments based on the pact are preparing to launch litigation against the U.S.
Relations between Canada and the U.S. took a nosedive as talks drew to a close after the U.S. Commerce Department announced it would impose steep anti-dumping duties on Canadian manufacturer Bombardier's new CSeries jetliners.
The U.S. imposed 220 percent duties on the major jet manufacturer following an investigation into state subsidies sparked by a Boeing complaint. The move was criticized by the Canadian and Quebec governments, which said the duties were "absurd," "ridiculous," "madness," and an attempt to "stifle competition."
The two neighbors are among the world's closest allies and trading partners, with more than half a trillion dollars worth of goods exchanged annually.
Trade among the three nations has quadrupled since NAFTA came into effect in 1994, surpassing US$1 trillion in 2015.