Officials seek 'wiggle room' in NAFTA talks as US deadline lapses

Washington (AFP) –


Mexican and Canadian officials on Thursday appeared to brush off the passage of an informal deadline set by the US Congress to reach a deal on revamping a continent-wide trade pact.

Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, likewise said there was "wiggle room" as Thursday appeared to come and go with no finalized draft agreement -- even though he had previously said American lawmakers needed to have any proposed tri-nation deal by May 17 to have time to vote on it.

The remarks came as Washington faced a dizzyingly complex workload in waging multi-front trade battles with Europe, China and its North American trade partners.

Trump on Thursday lashed out at China and Europe, calling them "spoiled" and casting doubt on the chances of a deal with Beijing even as Chinese negotiators were in Washington for talks.

His words helped send an indecisive Wall Street lower. Trade worries have added to fears that the bull market in US stocks since Trump's election may have come to an end.

The talks to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have been hung up on US demands to increase American content in cars that receive duty free treatment in the trade bloc, and to have a sunset provision, which would require the three governments to renew the treaty after five years.

The political calendar has imposed tight deadlines. Mexico is due to hold presidential elections in July, making authorities there even less willing to appear to have conceded to Washington's demands.

Likewise, November's mid-term legislative elections are also bearing down in the United States, leaving lawmakers in the majority Republican party with little bandwidth to absorb a deal as they fight to hold on to power.

- 'We will keep trying' -

In Mexico, officials on Thursday downplayed the importance of Ryan's deadline.

"Today is definitely not a do-or-die date. The process is continuing, the technical teams from all three countries are working," said Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.

His remarks echoed those made by Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

"I would not rule out the possibility of reaching (a deal) at any moment from the last week in May, or as long as it takes," Guajardo told journalists.

"I would hope it would happen as soon as possible," he added. "We sat down for a month trying to achieve the necessary flexibility.... We didn't get there last week, but we will keep trying to achieve it."

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed hopeful, saying Thursday that a deal was "on the table" with just a few more issues to be worked out.

He described trade in automobiles and auto parts as the last major sticking point in the negotiations to revamp 24-year-old NAFTA.

"It's right down to the last conversations," he said, adding that he is "feeling positive" about the chances the three nations will reach a deal but that "it won't be done until it's done."

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who previously set the deadline, opened the possibility there might be more time.

"My guess is, there's probably some wiggle room...but not an indefinite amount," Ryan told reporters on Thursday.