Free trade rhetoric has never matched reality

by Angelo Persichilli (The Hill Times – 16 Oct. 2017)

The North American Free Trade Agreement is a tool nobody likes but everybody needs and uses it. Conversations among partners are surreal. “Excuse me, are you Mike?” The answer: “No, I am Mike.” “Sorry, I believed you were Mike.”

Since the beginning of the conversations in the late ‘80s with FTA (Free Trade Agreement between Canada and US), the politicking has always taken over reality. The Canadian Conservatives of Brian Mulroney and the American Republicans of Ronald Reagan were in favour, the Liberals (remember John Turner?) and the Democrats in the US were against it, along with the Unions, both in Canada and the US. The Canadian Unions were against because “we would lose jobs to the United States”, while the US Unions, with the AFL-CIO in the front line, were against it because “we would lose jobs to Canada.”

Then the agreement, negotiated by the Canadian Conservatives and American Republicans, was approved and signed by the Canadian Liberals of Jean Chretien and the American Democrats of Bill Clinton. To be honest, Chretien said that he would have signed only after some changes, but Clinton said, “Don’t touch it!”

The agreement was then extended to Mexico and the surreal dialogue continued for almost 25 years with threats of cancellation almost once a month from political leaders of all political affiliations.

In the meantime, whenever a trade dispute arose, we had governments or politicians picking up the agreement asking the counterpart to respect it or, conversely, the opponent, to dispose of it.

After almost 30 years, the agreement is still there but it is impossible to understand who is in favour and who is against.

I mean, we know that the American president Donald Trump is against and the governments of Canada and Mexico are in favour. But that’s politics, all talk and no action.

Take the last round of meetings between the “Three Amigos”. Prime Minister Trudeau goes to Washington warning us that we might have a (bad) surprise from President Trump during the meetings. Then they had a press joint conference where Trudeau said there are differences while Trump, with the politeness typical of his political skills says that some significant changes are needed, in fact, he says that he wants to scrap it.

Then Trudeau goes to Mexico and he and President Enrique Pena Nieto tell us that Canada and Mexico will remain at the negotiation table. We knew that, the doubts before the trip were about the willingness of the White House host to be present at the table.

The surreal conversation goes on with people pledging to “improve” the agreement, others promising to scrap it, some of those who were against 25 years ago are (almost) in favour now, and those in favour at the time, are against it now. The American Republicans were in favour and the Democrats on the sidelines. Now the Republicans are against while the Democrats are in favour. But no, the Democrats of Hillary Clinton are in favour, not those of Bernie Sanders that, on this subject agree with Donald Trump’s Republicans.

In Canada now the Liberals are the staunchest defenders, the Conservatives are in favour even if they stay on the sidelines, while the NDP and the Unions are…I don’t know.

In the meantime, our present prime minister Justin Trudeau believes that he can save the agreement from Donald Trump’s delirium and remain at the table and former prime minister Stephen Harper believes that there is no table at which seat. Trump, at the same time, promise to scrap the agreement, actually, no, he wants to improve it; we want to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But, when someone reminds him that TPP has already been scrapped, he goes back to NAFTA saying that, yes, he wants to improve the agreement, then scrap it. Or something like that.

Now that the meetings in Washington and Mexico City are over things are much clearer, in fact we know exactly what we knew before, that is, nothing.

The fact of the matter is that the position of most political organizations, on most of the issues, is not dictated by the general interest of the citizens, but the political gain that might generate at the time.

In the meantime, the agreement is still alive and kicking, as it should. For now.

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 Angelo Persichilli is a former director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper, former columnist for Toronto Sun and Toronto Star and former political editor of Corriere Canadese

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