Canadian and U.S. officials have agreed to take a weekend break from NAFTA talks after a week of tense negotiations in Washington and comments from U.S. President Donald Trump suggesting he is unwilling to compromise on a deal.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters she’s optimistic a deal is still within reach, but “we’re not there yet.”
“With goodwill and flexibility on all sides I know we can get there,” she said at a Friday afternoon news conference at the Canadian Embassy.
Freeland said Canada is making progress but “will only sign a new agreement if it benefits Canada and Canadians.”
United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he’ll pick up with Canada’s team on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
“We have also been negotiating with Canada throughout this year-long process. This week those meetings continued at all levels. The talks were constructive, and we made progress,” Lighthizer said in an emailed statement.
He said U.S. President Donald Trump has notified Congress that his government intends to sign a trade agreement “with Mexico — and Canada, if it is willing — 90 days from now.”
Senior U.S. officials, speaking to reporters on a background call, said the Trump administration is on pace to offer Congress a full text of the renegotiated deal within 30 days.
The United States, Canada and Mexico had been trying to come up with at least a preliminary agreement in principle by the end of Friday — a deadline selected by Trump.
Sources tell CBC News that Chapter 19 of NAFTA, which contains a dispute-resolution process that Canada is determined to keep and the U.S. wants to scrap, is the most challenging area in the talks.
Another continuing irritant, supply management, reared its head Friday when a spokesperson for Lighthizer said Canada hasn’t made any concessions on agriculture.
‘Canada knows where I stand’
The pause in talks and Trump’s letter to Congress capped off a rocky day of negotiations.
The Toronto Star reported Friday that Trump, in an interview with Bloomberg News, said the U.S. is unwilling to make concessions and that his position was “going to be so insulting they’re [Canada] not going to be able to make a deal.” CBC News has not independently verified the comments.
Trump admitted on Twitter that he made the comments to Bloomberg on Friday, claiming an understanding with the news agency that his comments were off the record was “blatantly violated.”
“Oh well, just more dishonest reporting. I am used to it. At least Canada knows where I stand!” he tweeted.
Wow, I made OFF THE RECORD COMMENTS to Bloomberg concerning Canada, and this powerful understanding was BLATANTLY VIOLATED. Oh well, just more dishonest reporting. I am used to it. At least Canada knows where I stand!
Sources say Canada confronted U.S. negotiators about Trump’s comments as talks between Freeland and Lighthizer got underway in Washington earlier in the day.
Asked about the report, Freeland insisted Canada won’t cave to any demand, and that the government will defend the national interest in any NAFTA deal.
Trump claims total control
In the remarks published by the Star, Trump said any possible NAFTA deal would be “totally on our terms.”
“Off the record, Canada’s working their ass off. And every time we have a problem with a point, I just put up a picture of a Chevrolet Impala,” he reportedly said.
The Impala is assembled at the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ont.
Trump announced Monday that he and outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto agreed on a new trade deal that he said could replace NAFTA. He has threatened to slap 25 per cent tariffs on Canadian-built cars if there is no NAFTA deal.
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, now a member of the government’s NAFTA council, said Trump’s letter to Congress gives Canada a month to smooth out the sticking points.
“Everyone wants to get a deal now that Canada is back at the table, but we didn’t get one today. That doesn’t mean we won’t get one next week,” she told CBC Radio’s The House.
She noted the respectful tone between Freeland and Lighthizer.
“And interestingly they both point to the concessions that Mexico has made around the auto sector. That is what I think is key to getting a deal.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh praised the Liberal government for pausing.
“Trump is trying to force a bad deal on Canadians, and our government is right to take the time it needs to get this deal right,” he tweeted late Friday.
Tory MP and foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said it looks like the Canadian team is trying to catch up to the U.S. and Mexico.
“After spending three months on the sidelines, Canada is now back at the negotiating table trying to make up for lost time,” he said in a statement.
“We are ready and willing to assist the government at this critical time.”