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Leaders summit still holds weight: politicians, pundits

by Chelsea Nash (feat. Colin Robertson)

The Hill Times
July 6, 2016

Trade, unity, and cross-border relations dominated talks at the North American Leaders Summit last week, which ended with Canadian members of Parliament chanting “four more years” for outgoing President Barack Obama after his address in the House of Commons.

They might have been chanting that because of the likelihood that either presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or Republican, businessman, and wannabe wall-builder Donald Trump will take over as America’s commander-in-chief following the presidential election in November. 

Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump have expressed their discomfort—and in Mr. Trump’s case, disdain, even—for free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the yet-to-be ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If NAFTA were to be axed, the general sentiment is it would not be good for Canadian jobs. 

The true significance then of Mr. Obama’s public speeches and private meetings with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) begs to be questioned. How much weight can a “lame duck” president really hold in terms of North American trade and relations?

“It could be a done deal very quickly,” depending on how Republicans do in the election, said Conservative MP Gerry Ritz (Battlefords-Lloydminster, Sask.). He said the Republican Party is contradicting itself right now, saying it is pro-business but acting anti-trade.

While Mr. Ritz said he didn’t see anything tangible come out of the summit, which he found problematic given the expense that went into facilitating the day’s events, he also doesn’t necessarily think the American election will be catastrophic for trade, both within North America and more broadly.

“There’s one thing to be politically against something when you’re campaigning but then pragmatism and common sense takes over once you’re in,” he said.

Ms. Clinton has also been criticized for flip-flopping on NAFTA and the TPP, and that criticism has followed her into this election.

Carlo Dade, who is the director for the Centre for Trade and Investment Policy at the Canada West Foundation, said demographics suggest Mr. Trump can’t be elected, with the controversial businessman polling poorly among voting blocs crucial to determining who sits in the White House. And as far as Ms. Clinton goes, her entire legacy is arguably based on the United States’ pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region in terms of trade, he said.

“This was Clinton’s policy, she gave the speech when she was Secretary of State and she worked to enact this policy,” he said, adding “the whole Pacific pivot strategy fails if the TPP doesn’t go through.”

The U.S. Pacific pivot strategy includes the TPP, in which the United States is aiming to get ahead of Asia-Pacific partners like China in the negotiations, so they are the ones setting the terms.

“It is my firm belief that shaping those in accordance with the values that our three countries care deeply about is going to be good for us. And us trying to abandon the field and pull up the drawbridge around us is going to be bad for us,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference in Ottawa last Wednesday at the National Gallery. 

“So you have to think of a candidate who for years as secretary of state advanced this doctrine, turning away from it to win a presidency,” said Mr. Dade. “Maybe, but in terms of her thinking, in terms of the administration, in terms of the people she’ll bring in, it’s impossible to see her doing a complete 180. She’s just too deep into it.”

Birgit Matthiesen said it was “quite the contrary” when asked if President Obama’s dwindling time in office made the summit less relevant in any way.

“In the backdrop of Brexit and the U.K. vote, the international trade world is sort of at a standstill because of the surprising vote,” said the director of Canada-U.S. cross border business affairs at law firm Aren’t Fox in Washington, adding that the summit actually helped to reinvigorate international trade.

“Businesses around the world, and certainly those we work with, they look for certainty and predictability…The NAFTA has been this beacon of stability for businesses in North America for over twenty years now,” she said.

She noted the small changes that were made to NAFTA in the context of the summit as being particularly important.

“Are they sexy changes, do they grab headlines? Probably not…but they are certainly important for so many of those companies who not only trade with each other across North American borders, but they make the product that comes out of the North American region,” she said.

The updates include an agreement between the three nations to “liberalize the NAFTA rules of origin for a variety of products, including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, rubber, metals, industrial, and electrical machinery, precision instruments, and natural gas.” It is referred to as a “practical example of reducing costs in North American trade,” in a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“During these very uncertain, almost volatile times, it was exactly a stimulus that was probably well received by many industry sectors,” Ms. Matthiesen said.

Colin Robertson, former diplomat and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, stressed that a lot of the steps taken by the Three Amigos at the summit set the precedent for any future leaders.

“You can’t turn the clock back,” he told The Hill Times. “It’s going to be a permanent part of where we’re going.”

He said while there are still irritants between Canada and the United States—softwood lumber being one of them—the point of reference “for the new administration will be that which we’ve already achieved.”  

He said that doesn’t mean there isn’t a threat to trade deals like NAFTA and more generally, relations between the three North American countries, but that in the American system, “it’s always much harder to effect change.”

Congress often leaves things in gridlock, he said, and that could work in Canada’s favour if a deal like NAFTA was to come under threat by the potential of a Trump presidency. And, if Ms. Clinton is elected, he said the status quo will very likely continue. After the summit, “we’ve shifted the status quo to our advantage.”

Ms. Matthiesen however, said it’s too early to start worrying about the impact of the American election on trade altogether. “We are in the quote-unquote ‘silly season’ of the U.S. political campaign season,” she said, stressing that it’s not even the general election yet. “I think that if you look back, every presidential election always has had some very strong statements about trade and American jobs.”

“American leaders and American members of congress and the incumbent of the White House know very well where American interests lie and what’s important. A very strong American leadership on trade policy, I fully expect to see,” she said.

 


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