Trudeau Treads Carefully With Trump as Nafta Clock Ticks

2017-05-29 15:46:55

By Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg News

Justin Trudeau really didn’t want to talk about Donald Trump. After three days together at a pair of meetings in Europe, the Canadian prime minister spent a press conference bobbing, weaving and ducking questions from reporters about his U.S. counterpart.

The barrage of media queries came as the 43rd Group of Seven summit in Sicily ended with the U.S. president as an outlier. The final meeting communique had all leaders except Trump back the Paris climate accord and added new caveats aimed at appeasing the U.S. — thanks in part to diplomacy and deft editing by Canada.

But while Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron showed signs of frustration with Trump — the German chancellor said Sunday that Europe can no longer fully rely on the U.S. — Trudeau put on a happy face. He’s intent on playing peacemaker while confronting a growing list of disputes with his top trade partner in areas such as lumber, dairy and aerospace. And, given the dependence that Canada has on its southern neighbor, he has a lot to lose.

“I’m not going to lecture another country on what they should do, nor will I have my position determined by anyone outside of Canada,” Trudeau said when asked about Trump at a press conference Saturday in the seaside town of Taormina, Italy. “We share a very similar approach on a broad range of issues.”

Trump officially set the table for new talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement when he notified Congress on May 18 that he intends to start renegotiating the 23-year-old deal binding the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 90 days. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland joined Trudeau at the G-7 and said Canada would be focused on finding “common ground” with the U.S. on trade.

Lumber Dispute

In a 30-minute bilateral meeting on Saturday, Trump and Trudeau discussed trade but not Nafta specifically, said a Canadian government official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. The Congressional notice period prevents Trump from discussing Nafta with Canadian and Mexico officials.

Instead, the pair talked about softwood lumber, steel, aluminum and aerospace. In the latter case, Trudeau’s government is threatening to back out of a planned purchase of Boeing Co. fighter jets because of a trade case pending against Canada’s Bombardier Inc.

Trump said in a Twitter post on Saturday, not long after meeting with Trudeau, that he’d “take major action if necessary” as his Commerce Department reviews whether steel and aluminum imports threaten national security.

Through it all, Trudeau espoused a positive view of Trump.

“We know that creating growth through trade in ways that benefits all our citizens is a priority we share,” Trudeau told reporters. “The approach that we need to strike fair, free, open, balanced trade is something we all share around the table.”

It was a decidedly rosier conclusion than others. Merkel, conversely, left the G-7 to declare that “the last few days” left her reassessing the reliability of the transatlantic relationship. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” she said. Macron, the newly elected French president, later described his knuckle-crushing handshake with Trump as a “moment of truth” designed to show he’s no pushover.

‘Fight Protectionism’

While the summit face-time yielded little on Nafta, it underscored Trump’s position — and hinted at a change. The U.S. initially bristled at the inclusion of a pledge to oppose protectionism in the G-7’s joint release. Ultimately, though, the communique had leaders committing to “keep our markets open and to fight protectionism, while standing firm against all unfair trade practices.”

Reflecting Trump’s view of the U.S. as the loser in many trade deals, it also noted that “trade has not always worked to the benefit of everyone.”

The path forward for Trudeau is risky because no G-20 country does a larger share of its trade with the U.S. than Canada. Trudeau is weighing restrictions on shipments of American coal through Canadian ports in response to U.S. tariffs placed on its lumber. Canada has also pledged to fight the lumber duties — imposed as part of a long-running dispute — in court.

The lumber spat is shaping up to take years, and Nafta talks could stretch into 2018, when they could be snagged by U.S. midterm elections and Mexico’s presidential vote. With Europe frustrated by Trump and lengthy battles shaping up, Trudeau is sticking with a pair of mantras: Freeland’s hunt for “common ground,” which was also the title of Trudeau’s 2015 autobiography, and “sunny ways,” the 45-year-old leader’s quasi-slogan of optimism from his winning campaign that year.

“There’s always opportunities to do more on trade, always opportunities to improve trade deals,” Trudeau said on Saturday. “And that’s very much what we’re focused on.”

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