Trade deal signing seems strictly ceremonial

Trade deal signing seems strictly ceremonial

So that’s done.

Friday’s dreary photo op of outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto signing the USMCA/CUSMA trade deal alongside U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau played precisely as predicted. The only excitement in Buenos Aires may have been the snapping, growling hounds caught in the frame as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland responded, streetside, to reporters’ questions after the signing. Ever sanguine, the minister took a pause until the dogs were reined in by their owners and calm was restored.

The ink is barely dry on the USMCA, but there is already a push for changes, writes Jennifer Wells.
The ink is barely dry on the USMCA, but there is already a push for changes, writes Jennifer Wells.  (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

There was, in fact, nothing to suggest a divergence from the run of events I wrote about two weeks ago.

With the inauguration of Andres Manual Lopez Obrador slated for Dec. 1., the deal demanded signing no later than Friday. Two take-aways from the moment itself: President Trump takes some considerable time to get his signature down. And he appears to favour the sort of fat black marker that celebrities use to sign glossy photographs.

In matters of significance, the Democrats are rolling out their promised legislative agenda, made real on Friday with the confirmation that the first order of business when they take control of the House in January will be, as Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) phrased it, a “push back on the influence of big money.” Sarbanes had earlier co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post with speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi that broadly outlined what will be a big bill. Campaign finance reform would require political organizations to disclose their donors and would shut down “the shell-game of big-money donations to Super PACs.” The oversight authority of the Office of Government Ethics would be revamped. Conflict of interest laws would be expanded. And more.

In a video released by his staff last week, Sarbanes summed up the bill as a means to get the people “back into their own democracy.”

There wasn’t anything to suggest that the Democrats, come the new year, will veer from their other legislative priorities, which include lowering the cost of health care and passing the Equality Act amendment to the Civil Rights Act.


Following a news conference Friday, Pelosi was asked how she saw the trade deal playing out in the new House in the new year. “The, the trade agreement formerly known as Prince — no, I mean, formerly known…as NAFTA is a work in progress,” she replied brightly. There was laughter in the room.

But seriously. “We are admiring of the trade representative and the attempt he has made to make sure that we are aware of what is in it,” Pelosi went on to say. “But what isn’t in it yet is enough enforcement reassurance, as regarding workers, provisions that relate to workers and to the environment. There also has not been a law passed in Mexico in terms of wages and working conditions in Mexico. So when all of that happens, people will make a judgment about whether they will be supporting it.”

What was absent was any talk to push urgently the new version of the free trade deal beyond the ceremonial signing.

On the contrary, tweaking the deal, at a minimum, remains the more obvious course. Unhappily for Trump there’s a growing chorus of voices disenchanted with the deal.

On Friday, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted that the deal “allows Mexico to dump government subsidized produce on the U.S. market. Going forward America will depend on Mexico for our winter vegetables. Unacceptable.”

Pelosi hasn’t veered from the accurate party line that the environmental and labour chapters in the new deal remain flaccid and inadequate. Mexico has just four weeks to pass legislation enshrining such basic labour rights as the right of collective bargaining and the prohibition of employer interference in union activities, a practise for which Mexico is renowned. What the new NAFTA fails to enshrine is tough enough enforcement provisions once those laws are in place. That’s a point that has been repeatedly emphasized by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has been fighting for improved labour laws in Mexico alongside a better deal for his beloved dairy farmers in his home state.

Some see the opposition by the Democrats as playing politics. A deeper read allows that the old NAFTA failed abysmally in the areas of labour and the environment. Failing to achieve a gold standard now will be this generation’s failure to protect those who come after.

Or at least that was the focus two weeks ago.

Now it’s more complicated. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.) warned that the refreshed NAFTA “won’t stop outsourcing, it won’t raise wages, and it won’t create jobs.” The rebuke was particularly stinging during a week when General Motors workers in the U.S. faced job losses against the automaker’s trumpeting of its operations in Silao, Mexico. The chorus of concern over that dynamic will only grow.

President Trump, who appeared quite dour at the moment of signing — could he have been preoccupied? — predicted smooth sailing ahead. “I look forward to working with members of Congress and the USMCA partners….I don’t expect to have very much of a problem.”

That’s increasingly unlikely to be the case.

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