• US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has said the seventh round of renegotiations to modernise NAFTA has not seen as much progress as many had hoped.
  • He added while the US would prefer a three-way, tripartite agreement, it is prepared to move on a bilateral basis, if agreement can be made.
  • Of the roughly 30 chapters that need to be agreed upon, Lighthizer says just six have been completed after seven months.
Discussions were held in Mexico City, Mexico, this week

Discussions were held in Mexico City, Mexico, this week

The US has once again expressed concern over the slow progress made in renegotiations to modernise the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but said while it would prefer a three-way tripartite agreement, if that proves impossible, it is prepared to move on a bilateral basis.

Following the seventh round of meetings in Mexico City that concluded on Monday (5 March), United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer observed that in spite of the hard work made by negotiators, "we have not made the progress that many had hoped in this round."

Lighthizer added the talks saw the closure of three additional chapters: Good Regulatory Practices, Administration and Publication, and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. He said there has also been substantial progress made on Telecommunications and Technical Barriers to Trade.  

However, while he added these chapters are important and provide further evidence that all three countries want to upgrade and modernise NAFTA, in order to complete NAFTA 2.0, negotiators will need agreement on roughly 30 chapters. 

"So far, after seven months we have completed just six," Lighthizer warned, but conceded that "these things tend to converge more towards the end of a negotiation."

Meanwhile, Lighthizer also used his closing statement to highlight the two "major goals" in these negotiations.

"First, we want to update NAFTA to address modern trade issues.  All three countries agree that NAFTA is outdated, and I believe we should be able to reach agreement on new issues like digital trade, labour, and environment, intellectual property, and much more.  We urge all parties to move more quickly on these issues," he said.

"Second, we believe that NAFTA should be rebalanced.  This has been a longstanding US concern about the treatment of our workers and businesses.  From our point of view, among other things, changing the agreement so that it no longer encourages outsourcing, developing rules of origin that will fairly treat our manufacturing sector and workers, and reshaping the rules of government procurement are very important.  We also need to make more progress on these points to conclude a new NAFTA.  We continue to stress the need to act quickly."

And with time running very short, negotiators also have upcoming elections to contend with. On 1 July, Mexico will choose a new president, with campaigns due to start in earnest as soon as next month. In addition, both Ontario and Quebec have elections scheduled later this year, and the US has mid-term elections coming up in November – all of which "complicates our work", says Lighthizer.

"I fear that the longer we proceed, the more political headwinds we will feel," he adds.

Meanwhile, in all three countries, reaching an agreement at the negotiating table is only part of the process.  In the United States, after an agreement in principle is concluded, the country's laws require public disclosure of text, further consultations, and numerous reports before it can be considered by Congress. 

As a result, Lighthizer says the US must resolve its outstanding issues soon to maintain the possibility of having this measure be considered by the current Congress.

Finally, the US trade representative said that while the US would prefer a three-way, tripartite agreement. But if that proves impossible, it is prepared to move on a bilateral basis, if agreement can be made.

"We have tried to be clear and very specific about what we hope to see in a new NAFTA," Lighthizer added. "We are prepared to work continuously to achieve a breakthrough. I understand that these talks are not easy for anyone. Each of us has our own political concerns. But we are at the point where we have very important decisions to be made. If the political will is there, I am certain that we have a path to a rapid and successful conclusion."