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US, Mexico, Canada to sign deal finalizing trade agreement

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Mexico City (AFP)

The United States, Mexico and Canada are expected to sign a deal Tuesday finalizing their new trade agreement, capping more than two years of negotiations and paving the way to ratification.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will chair a meeting of officials from the three countries at 1800 GMT, said they had reached a deal sealing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) after a flurry of last-ditch talks.

"There is an initial deal between the governments," the leftist leader told his daily news conference. "Today it will be signed by... the three countries' negotiators."

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- the key opposition Democrat needed to move the agreement forward -- and American labor unions on Tuesday gave their blessing to the deal, which they said now included improved labor standards.

Pelosi said the deal can now win Congressional approval, calling it "infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration."

The main US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, also called the deal a "vast improvement" over the original USMCA, which was signed a year ago but then got bogged down in haggling.

"For the first time, there truly will be enforceable labor standards," including inspections of factories, said Richard Trumka, the federation's president, whose support is critical to get the deal through Congress.

The changes also have toughened measures to monitor environmental provisions.

And they remove the requirement for the countries to provide at least 10 years of exclusivity for biologic drugs, which blocks cheaper generic versions.

- Final, final deal? -

The USMCA was signed in November 2018, after more than a year of negotiations to update the countries' original trade deal, the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which President Donald Trump complains has been "a disaster" for the United States.

But Mexico, which became an export powerhouse under NAFTA, is the only country to ratify it so far.

In Washington, opposition Democrats -- acutely aware of the need to win back blue-collar voters they lost to Trump in 2016 -- have insisted on greater oversight of Mexican labor reforms promised under the new deal.

In a bid to fend off US concerns about jobs flooding south of the border, Mexico has raised its minimum wage and passed labor reforms to give unions more power and workers more say in running them.

But US labor groups and Pelosi's Democrats had voiced skepticism over the Mexican government's ability to enforce the new rules.

That led to a drawn-out ratification process in the United States, where the trade deal has been mixed up in Trump's ongoing impeachment drama and electoral politics heading into his 2020 re-election campaign.

Canada has said it will ratify the deal in tandem with the US.

Mexico meanwhile says the new provisions will have to go back to its Senate for final approval.

- Down to the wire -

Ratification of the deal had looked precarious in recent weeks.

Lopez Obrador had firmly rejected the initial US proposal for inspections at Mexican factories and businesses.

The window has been narrowing for action by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives as 2019 draws to a close and an election year approaches.

Lawmakers also face competing priorities as they press ahead with impeachment proceedings against Trump and legislation to prevent a government shutdown this month.

"I am hearing very good things," Trump said Monday. "I am hearing a lot of strides have been made over the last 48 hours."

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, were expected Tuesday in Mexico, according to The Washington Post.

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland -- the country's lead negotiator -- also headed to Mexico.

Trudeau's office said Monday he had spoken to Trump by phone and the two had vowed to stay "in touch through the final stages of the negotiations."

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