NAFTA with a New Name

 The Trump administration successfully negotiated an updated North American Free Trade Agreement with modernized provisions, concessions of value to farmers and automakers and, of course, a new name. However, politics could still undermine the deal when it goes to Congress and consternation remains among trading partners with continuing Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The Trump administration successfully negotiated an updated North American Free Trade Agreement with modernized provisions, concessions of value to farmers and automakers and, of course, a new name. However, politics could still undermine the deal when it goes to Congress and consternation remains among trading partners with continuing Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The Canadians agreed to final terms for a $1.2 trillion North American free trade agreement that gave President Trump a political triumph and NAFTA a new name. However, the deal doesn’t end a simmering trade war sparked by US tariffs on steel and aluminum and still faces a treacherous political road to passage.

Trade experts gave credit to the Trump administration for completing a three-way deal to update the 25-year-old trade that candidate Trump derided as terrible. Trump critics note the new trade pact is largely the same car with a rebranded nameplate to appease Trump. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, said the foundation remains, but the superstructure is superior. 

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) still must be approved by Congress, which seems more likely after cliffhanger negotiations with Canada prevented Trump from submitting just a bilateral agreement with Mexico. The agreement also must be ratified by the respective legislative bodies in Canada and Mexico.

Most everybody agreed NAFTA needed a refresher, if for no other reason to account for a phalanx of digital industries and e-commerce that didn’t exist when it was signed. There also was a push to strengthen intellectual property protections, the underlying issue that has sparked a Trump-inspired trade war with China. There are reportedly 63 pages worth of provisions that address patents and trademarks, including two additional years of protection for biologic drugs, which Trump hailed as a key to US medical innovation.

A major sticking point was Canada’s barrier that prevents US dairy farmers from penetrating their market. The Canadians traded some of that protection to retain a trade dispute resolution provision that Trump wanted to scrap. Somewhat ironically, Canadians had agreed to a similar sized dairy concession in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump abandoned when he took office.

Domestic car manufacturing was a core reason why Trump pushed for a better North American trade agreement. The agreement reached earlier with Mexico increases the North American auto content requirements and requires more content from higher paid autoworkers to qualify for duty-free treatment. AFL-CIO leaders withheld their support for the change, saying they doubted the higher wages and better working conditions in Mexico can be enforced. The USMCA effectively requires unionization of Mexican autoworkers, which runs counter to state-level right-to-work laws, which political conservatives have pushed for in the United States.

Economists fret that higher wages will make North American vehicles more expensive and less competitive against vehicles imported from overseas, which face a nominal tariff. Trump is pledging to address the import tariff and potentially replace it with quotas. There also is a side letter to the agreement that preserves Trump’s ability to impose tariffs on automobiles assembled in Mexico or Canada. 

Trump sought a 5-year sunset clause on the deal. In the final agreement, the USMCA has a 16-year life span, with a review after six years.

A key element of the deal for the incoming Mexican president is a clause that restates Mexico’s claim of ownership of all hydrocarbons in its subsoil. The provision doesn’t prevent foreign companies from producing oil in Mexico.

While agreement on NAFTA modernization brought sighs of relief, there is still consternation over steel and aluminum tariffs – and their rationale: protecting US national security. The pretense for the tariffs has irked Canadians who don’t view themselves as security risks to the United States.

Looming elections that could flip control of the House to Democrats might complicate approval of the USMCA. Democrats may not want to bless a Trump achievement before the 2020 presidential election and Republicans may decide to poke the eye of unions, which have been a major force behind revamping NAFTA. That could leave the USMCA an agreement without a country and further muddy the waters on US trade policy.