National Newswatch

MEXICO CITY – It is very misleading to describe Round Five of the NAFTA 2.0 rebalancing negotiations in Mexico City as quiet or slow.

The TV camera ambush at the bottom of the stairs from the main negotiating floor was abandoned for much of Sunday. They are back at their posts but how often does the multitude have to be told “no comment” in all official languages?

Negotiating trade agreements is not a spectator sport. There are no scoreboards, no referees, no replays.

Trade negotiators operate on a unique timeframe measured in months and years. The original three to four month schedule never had a chance.

The rapid pace, inflexible demands and threats of termination are all part of the run-up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. If it worked in 2016, why not for the second term?

On the floor above the press centre, the negotiators are doing what negotiators do – they are negotiating. They are not playing pinochle, although I expect some wish they had been able to attend the Raiders/Patriots game.

The tidbits of news that find their way into the corridors and media centre, compliments of “friendly” negotiators and the spin doctors responsible for massaging the media, are carefully constructed and far from accidental.

There are dozens of negotiating groups at work for very full days. After a short dinner break there are consultations and co-ordination meetings among the negotiators and with provincial representatives and private sector stakeholders.

On the poison pills, where the divisions are deepest and most intractable, there is no movement. All are deal breakers. Even those proposing these impossible changes are not trying to find middle ground. If you cut the poison pill in half, the reminder is still toxic. Seppuku is not a popular sport among Canadian negotiators.

On many issues, there will be serious bouts of give and take. Even if much of it is about drafting, the drafting influences substance.

Some issues, like government procurement, feature novel, indeed, bizarre approaches, which have created wide and deep gaps, and differences which will not be resolved soon or easily.

Negotiators may spend hours or days to unlock a disputed paragraph. But when the Gordian knot is undone, other paragraphs can untangle, falling like dominos. Progress can facilitate favourable linkages between chapters.

It is important to understand the extent and complexity of the detail in play. While some chapters may be only a few paragraphs long or a few pages, others can comprise dozens of pages of legalistic detail. Every word is potentially important and precise meanings matter.

The more outrageous and non-negotiable demands – like for a five year sunset clause – attract attention. And the vigor with which they are advanced or rejected usually generates much more heat than light. These issues are the most likely to be deal breakers. They bleed – so they tend to lead.

The time consuming negotiations about the building blocks are certainly not sexy. That is why the pros work carefully on building, stabilizing and avoiding contradiction to create meaningful, viable and mutually unsatisfactory agreements. The politicians come in at the end, or at certain stages to bless or condemn the results.

Perceptions based on visible progress are misleading. Massaging the detail contained in thousands of pages of text and appendices does not generate high fives when Canada or Mexico persuades the group that an obligation will be cast as the much more binding “shall” than “should”.

Normally some 80% of a trade agreement is comprised of non-controversial boilerplate adopted from earlier agreements. President Trump’s decision to reject the TPP has complicated U.S. efforts to recycle those texts.

The greatest problem for the negotiators toiling on the floors above us is determining what the U.S. really wants – and what it is prepared to pay for it.

There have been too many requests for concessions – and virtually no offers of payment. Until the take, take, take approach morphs into something more reasonable, the negotiations will move at a crawl. This is because nothing is done until everything is resolved, and the poison pills will determine the pace of the final agreement.

Peter Clark, president of Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates, is one of Canada’s leading international trade strategists. His clients in Canada and around the world include governments, corporations and trade associations. He is a frequent media commentator and columnist.  Follow him on Twitter at @jpclark14

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