PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Canadian government has gotten what it wanted during U.S. meetings this week: clear, public assurances from powerful Republican politicians that the North American Free Trade Agreement will be preserved.
Those soothing messages came just days before the U.S. government is set to release its positions for NAFTA negotiations, which are scheduled to begin next month under the shadow of intermittent threats by President Donald Trump to rip up the three-country deal.
Those reassurances didn’t just come from the state governors gathered in Rhode Island for their summer meetings. They also came from Trump’s vice-president. In a speech to dozens of state governors, Mike Pence promised a collaborative approach.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was seated in the room – he applauded the remarks.
“We will modernize NAFTA for the 21st century so that it is a win-win-win for all of our trading partners in North America,” Pence said, as Trudeau clapped and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland took notes throughout the speech.
“I know you’ll be hearing from Prime Minister Trudeau in a few minutes. Let me assure you: The United States and Canada have already built a remarkably strong relationship under these two leaders… We’re grateful for the prime minister’s leadership and his early outreach to this administration. President Trump recognizes that every trade relationship can improve and… we’re looking forward to bringing NAFTA into the future in a way that will equally benefit both our countries.”
Trudeau became the first foreign leader to address the annual governors’ gathering. It was the culmination of a months-long Canadian strategy of reaching out to governors in 11 politically important states, to encourage them to speak up in defense of NAFTA.
The prime minister said he was gratified by the response from various levels of government and urged more trade, not less: “We must get this right,” Trudeau said.
“Sometimes getting it right means refusing to take the politically-tempting shortcuts. More trade barriers, more local-content provisions, more preferential access for home-grown players in government procurement, for example, does not help working families over the long term, or even the mid-term.
“Such policies kill growth.”
He found a receptive audience. The Republican governor of Kentucky dismissed as absurd the notion that his country might impose trade barriers, like the idea of a border tax being suggested by some people in Washington.
“There’s a lot of concern, a lot of talk, a lot of hypotheses about what might happen, as things are renegotiated and things are re-discused,” said Gov. Matt Bevin.
“We’re each other’s strongest trading partner, we’re each other’s closest ally, literally and figuratively. The idea that it won’t come out in good measure for both parties is preposterous. I mean, the idea that it won’t be continuing a strong relationship is something, I think, people shouldn’t even waste time thinking about. Cross-border taxes don’t do anybody any good. Us starting to do tit-for-tat ultimately creates more trouble.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker left his meeting with the prime minister acknowledging differences over dairy policy, but he downplayed the idea that any single irritant could cause the dismantling of the three-country trade pact.
“I don’t think you need to blow it up. I think it needs to be improved,” Walker told a group of Canadian reporters. “For the businesses in Wisconsin … we want to make sure that our largest market in the world is still accessible.”
Trudeau met the governors of five states – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Iowa and Colorado. He was assisted by a broader delegation that including Ontario’s premier, provincial representatives from Quebec and Nova Scotia, and members of the House of Commons and Senate from different political parties.
Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne said she’s leaving these meetings more confident.
She said she now believes that there will be many forces in the United States pushing back against any move to cancel NAFTA, should such a move occur.
“I’ve spoken now to 21 or 22 governors,” Wynne said in an interview.
“The ones I’ve spoken to are going to be working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. Because they know that’s not in their best interest. If it were to happen I think there would be many and immediate calls to the decision-makers in Washington to say, ‘This is a dangerous path, and we can’t go down that path.”’